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Carolyn Bennett speaks during a news conference in Vancouver on May 31.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

British Columbia’s plan to decriminalize possession of small amounts of hard drugs will be considered successful if it reduces stigma associated with drug use, prevents overdoses and cuts crime, according to federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett. The province’s approach will be evaluated in terms of its impact on public health, such as hospital emergency department visits and ambulance use, as well as public safety.

In an interview, Dr. Bennett said she hoped B.C.’s approach “is about, obviously, saving lives,” allowing people to seek help without the stigma and risk of criminal charges. She will also be looking for public-safety outcomes that drug decriminalization programs outside of Canada have reported: “Crime goes down, people aren’t using in washrooms and really upsetting the neighbourhoods.”

Starting Jan. 31, 2023, B.C. will become the first province to remove criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs, including opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA, after it was granted an exemption from the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. The exemption, which expires on Jan. 31, 2026, allows people ages 18 and older to carry up to a threshold of 2.5 grams of these drugs for their personal use without the risk of arrest or criminal charges.

B.C.’s experiment will serve as a model for other parts of the country. For now, expanding decriminalization beyond B.C. will depend on applications for exemptions from individual municipalities, provinces and territories, Dr. Bennett said. Toronto has applied, and she noted that a number of other municipalities, including Edmonton and Montreal, are interested in doing the same.

“In order for the application to be successful, as it has been in British Columbia, we have to see that health and social services are ramped up to be able to receive people as they are no longer dealt with in the criminal justice system,” she said.

Decriminalization is regarded as a critical step to addressing a worsening drug toxicity crisis. Nationally, 7,560 people died of apparent opioid toxicity in 2021 – a rate of about 21 deaths a day, according to federal data.

However, some drug policy experts have expressed concerns about the approach being taken in B.C.

Caitlin Shane, a lawyer specializing in drug policy at Vancouver’s Pivot Legal Society, said the threshold quantity of 2.5 grams is too low for individuals in greatest need of decriminalization, such as those in remote communities or with mobility issues, who do not have regular access to a drug supply. Those who do not have homes and must carry all their possessions at once, and those who use larger quantities also tend to carry more than that amount at a time.

For these individuals, fear of police involvement will continue to drive drug use underground and deter them from seeking harm-reduction services, she said, noting that people should not be criminally sanctioned if possession is for their own use, regardless of the amount.

“We’re kind of setting ourselves up for failure because we’re still arresting people and incarcerating them and putting the fear in people for possession,” Ms. Shane said.

Bernie Pauly, a professor in the school of nursing at the University of Victoria and scientist with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, said that by setting the threshold at 2.5 grams, there’s a potential for a “rebound effect.” Certain communities, including those who are racialized, could come under even more scrutiny from police, who may target them to determine how much they are carrying, and if found to possess more than the limit they could face harsher penalties, she said.

The federal government should be looking to establish a model for decriminalizing drug possession for all of Canada, not just individual jurisdictions that apply for exemptions, which will result in “a patchwork situation,” Ms. Shane said.

“You’re also going to be leaving it only to those cities or provinces that have political motivation,” she said. “That shouldn’t be the basis for health policy or drug policy.”

Decriminalization is not a stand-alone solution, Dr. Pauly said. For it to be effective, it’s necessary to address some of the other root causes of the crisis, which means people must have access to harm-reduction services and treatment on demand, adequate housing, a decent income and the opportunity to address all forms of trauma, she said.

Even though B.C.’s approach is a positive step, “we can’t just sort of keep taking these small steps in the right direction,” Dr. Pauly said. “We actually have to have a full scale-up of a comprehensive approach.”

Dr. Bennett said it’s critical to seek out what works and what doesn’t from everywhere possible. To learn from other jurisdictions outside Canada, she visited Oregon, Washington state and Colorado in late August.

One of the key lessons, was that “if we’re going to move people from the criminal justice system into a health and social service setting, that the services have to be there.”

She was particularly impressed with co-responder models she saw, where mental-health professionals and police work together to handle serious situations. She also took note of the STAR (Support Team Assisted Response) program in Denver, which sends teams of mental-health clinicians and paramedics or emergency medical technicians to respond to low-risk 911 calls, such as for welfare checks.

Governments need to listen and give decision-making power to people who use drugs and are the experts on what works and what doesn’t, Ms. Shane said.

“As much as every level of government likes to say that they listen to people who use drugs and they value experiential knowledge, what we see in practice is completely the opposite.”

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