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A memorial for a person named Karen W. lays outside a building in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver on Feb. 10, 2021.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia is seeking approval from Ottawa to become the first province where possession of small amounts of illicit drugs is not a criminal offence.

Sheila Malcolmson, the province’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, inquired last week about a provincewide exemption from federal drug laws to remove criminal penalties for people possessing small amounts of drugs for personal use.

In a letter to Health Minister Patty Hajdu on Feb. 3, which was obtained by The Globe and Mail, Ms. Malcolmson said the change would help the province respond to a worsening overdose crisis that has taken thousands of lives in recent years. On Thursday, B.C. will release a report on its 2020 drug-death figures that will again shatter records, with more than 1,700 people dead.

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B.C. is the first province to seek such an exemption, although other Canadian cities have called on the government to decriminalize possession. The City of Vancouver has also sought an exemption, and is in formal discussions with Health Canada.

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Ms. Malcolmson’s letter outlined actions the province has taken to date, and said the COVID-19 pandemic has only added urgency. B.C. has identified “decriminalization as a critical component of a comprehensive response to addressing the overdose crisis and an important step to reducing system barriers,” the minister wrote.

She noted that she has the support of Premier John Horgan in bringing the matter to Ms. Hajdu’s attention.

“Are you willing to consider a Section 56 exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act for B.C. to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of controlled substances for personal use, as a way to reduce stigma as a barrier to treatment?” Ms. Malcolmson wrote.

“If you are, I look forward to the detailed work ahead. Provincial staff are already in contact with Health Canada and are ready to engage in more fulsome analysis, including starting to map out what a future public engagement process could look like.”

A person wrapped in a blanket walks through a Downtwon Eastside alley on Feb. 10, 2021.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Ms. Hajdu’s office did not provide a comment by late Wednesday. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said his government is not considering national decriminalization. However, Ms. Hajdu said in recent months that Ottawa will work with jurisdictions to identify options that respond to local needs.

Ministerial mandate letters after the 2020 provincial election directed Ms. Malcolmson, Public Safety Minister and Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth, and Attorney-General and Housing Minister David Eby to work with police chiefs to push Ottawa to decriminalize.

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“In the absence of prompt federal action, develop a made-in-B.C. solution that will help save lives,” read a line in each of their letters.

Proponents of decriminalization, which include the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, say it would reduce the stigma associated with drug use and encourage people to seek treatment and other support. It would also break cycles of criminal recidivism stemming from addiction, free up law enforcement resources and remove barriers that block harm-reduction services such as checking street drugs for toxic substances.

Decriminalization is not legalization. Personal possession and use of small amounts of illicit drugs would no longer be subject to criminal penalties, such as jail time, but possibly administrative penalties such as fines. The manufacturing and trafficking of illicit drugs would remain illegal.

Vancouver is “already well into the process with Health Canada” and has assembled a working group, hired consultants and anticipates sending the first of its submissions by March 1, Mayor Kennedy Stewart said in an e-mail to The Globe.

“While we don’t have details of any province of British Columbia application to Health Canada regarding decriminalization, we would welcome such work by the province on this file as we all have to do everything we can to bring an end to this terrible health disaster,” Mr. Stewart wrote.

It’s not yet known if B.C.’s decriminalization plan would supersede that of Vancouver. The city says it plans to proceed with its application as it may have different visions for decriminalization from the province.

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Under Section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the Minister of Health can exempt from provisions of the act “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.”

This exemption has been used to allow supervised drug-use sites and research or clinical trials that involve controlled substances. More recently, it has permitted pharmacists to prescribe, sell and transfer prescriptions for controlled substances so people with substance-use disorders can continue to get medications during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mr. Horgan joined those calling on Ottawa to decriminalize last July, but his government had refused to take action on a provincial level before. In 2019, Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry called the policy change a “fundamental underpinning and necessary next step” in the response to the overdose crisis, and issued a report outlining two routes B.C. could take.

However, Mr. Farnworth rejected the idea.

“We don’t believe that one province can go it alone, and the reality is that these substances, controlled substances, fall under federal jurisdiction,” he said at the time.

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