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Community members from the Drug User Liberation Front hand out clean, tested doses of drugs at a demonstration in Vancouver on April 14.JESSE WINTER/Reuters

British Columbia will become the first province in Canada to decriminalize possession of small amounts of hard drugs such as illicit fentanyl, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine after receiving an exemption from Ottawa to federal drug laws.

Effective Jan. 31, 2023, British Columbians 18 and older will be able to carry up to a cumulative total of 2.5 grams of these illicit substances without the risk of arrest or criminal charges. Under rules established by Ottawa and the province, police will not confiscate the drugs, and people found to be in possession will not be required to seek treatment. The production, trafficking and exportation of these drugs will remain illegal.

The province has ramped up its response in recent years to a drug crisis that has killed thousands of people, expanding harm-reduction measures and opening the door to a safer drug supply.

In removing criminal penalties for drug possession, government officials are heeding the calls of drug-policy experts and advocates who say it is a critical step in destigmatizing and meaningfully addressing problematic drug use.

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Federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett, who made the announcement alongside her B.C. counterpart, Sheila Malcolmson, said the decision was not taken lightly.

“This time-limited exemption is the first of its kind in Canada, and with it comes great responsibility for the health, safety and well-being of the people in British Columbia – and a template for other jurisdictions across Canada,” Ms. Bennett said on Tuesday in Vancouver.

Six years ago, B.C. declared a public-health emergency in response to skyrocketing overdose deaths from an increasingly volatile drug supply. Nearly 10,000 people have died since 2016 in B.C. alone, and advocates have pressed governments to re-examine drug laws that they say were intended to minimize harms but have had the opposite effect.

Fear of arrest can keep people who use drugs from seeking help, incarceration is associated with increased overdose risk, and Indigenous and racialized communities are disproportionately affected. Criminal sanctions for personal drug use also run counter to government messaging that substance use is a health issue.

The illicit drugs covered by the new rules are opioids including heroin and fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA – the substances most commonly associated with deaths from toxic drugs. Police will maintain discretion to arrest people and recommend charges for possessing other substances.

The exemption will not apply at elementary- and secondary-school premises, at licensed child-care facilities, in airports, or on Canadian Coast Guard vessels and helicopters. As well, possession is still prohibited in personal vehicles or watercraft operated by a minor, regardless of whether the vehicle or watercraft is in motion. Members of the Canadian Armed Forces are subject to the Code of Service Discipline, so the exemption will not apply to them.

Under Section 56(1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the minister of health can exempt “any person or class of persons … if, in the opinion of the minister, the exemption is necessary for a medical or scientific purpose or is otherwise in the public interest.” B.C.’s exemption expires on Jan. 31, 2026, or the date when it is revoked or replaced by another exemption.

Lori Hatfield of Lethbridge, Alta,, said removing the threat of imprisonment lifts one of the burdens from people struggling with addiction. Her adult son, now in recovery, was in and out of jail on drug charges for many years, and once suffered an overdose shortly after release.

Being arrested, charged and thrown into jail only deepens the shame people like her son feel, said Ms. Hatfield, who joined the advocacy group Moms Stop the Harm to lobby for better drug policy. “What we’re trying to do is make them feel loved and that they are worthy of life.”

The Alberta government has ruled out seeking an exemption.

Andrea Sereda, a doctor at a London, Ont., clinic that works with vulnerable drug users, welcomed the news. “I hope people bang pots in the street” to celebrate, she said. “It’s wonderful to see our government make a move toward decriminalizing not just drugs but people who use drugs, because that is what this is really about.”

Vancouver had applied for its own exemption, and will pause the application. Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who receives weekly updates on overdose deaths in his city, was informed by Ms. Bennett of B.C.’s successful application on Monday.

“I felt like crying, and I still feel like crying,” he said. “This is a big, big thing.”

B.C., which formally submitted its application to Health Canada seeking an exemption in November, had sought a cumulative threshold of 4.5 grams.

Ryan McNeil, director of harm-reduction research at the Yale Program in Addiction Medicine and an affiliated scientist at the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, said the 2.5-gram threshold fails to capture a large proportion of the people who use drugs. Fentanyl has changed drug-use patterns, many people use multiple substances, and people living in poverty often buy in bulk to save money, he said.

“Coming in at about half the threshold that B.C. had asked for, which was already below what people who use drugs are asking for, I think, is consistent with this pattern of [government] co-opting demands by the community for things that will keep them alive and safer, and delivering them in a way that just doesn’t work,” Dr. McNeil said.

“It’s happened with safe supply, and it’s happening with decrim. It’s discouraging to think that we can have a government meaningfully act on this issue when they’ve consistently demonstrated that they’re going to pursue half measures that won’t likely work.”

In an interview, Ms. Bennett said that law enforcement stakeholders say about 85 per cent of drug seizures are less than two grams, and that they were uncomfortable with the idea of a higher threshold.

“I think there was a view that the safest thing was to start by starting, and putting in place the public-safety and public-health indicators so we can monitor and adapt going forward,” she said.

NDP MP Gord Johns said decriminalization in B.C. was “an important step to stop the harms of failed drug policy,” but called the timing of the announcement “cynical.” It was made just one day before the House of Commons is to vote on his private member’s bill to decriminalize drugs across the country. Mr. Johns said he expects the governing Liberals to vote against the bill. Ms. Bennett said on Tuesday she would not support it. “They are doing this to soften the blow,” Mr. Johns said.

He said that letting one province decriminalize and not all the others would leave Canada with a “patchwork” system and put many drug users in danger. At the very least, the MP said, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should let his bill proceed to the next stage of approval, where it would be discussed and examined by a parliamentary committee. “What is he afraid of,” he demanded.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story indicated B.C. is the first jurisdiction in North America to decriminalize illicit drugs. It is in fact a Canadian first.

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