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Police speak to a man and woman on East Hastings in Vancouver's downtown eastside on Feb 7, 2019.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Police forces across British Columbia are finalizing training on new drug laws that will limit or entirely cease their interactions with people who use drugs as the province becomes the first in Canada to decriminalize simple possession.

The legal change, which takes effect Tuesday, marks a monumental shift in policing drug-related offences. While many police departments have in recent years moved away from arresting and recommending charges for possession alone, officers will now also stop confiscating illegal drugs – a standard practice they have known their whole careers.

The B.C. government is hopeful that the move will lessen the stigma of addiction and motivate people struggling with drug use to seek help – a part of the response to a toxic drug crisis that is killing six people in the province daily. But some municipal leaders fear it will have the opposite effect by painting drug use as permissible; at least one city is preparing to introduce a new bylaw that would re-engage police if people use in certain public spaces.

Jennifer Whiteside, B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, acknowledged these concerns but said the province’s record-shattering drug deaths demand a rethink of the status quo.

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“We have a public health emergency in B.C., where we have an unacceptably high number of people dying as a result of the toxic drug crisis, and it is incumbent on all of us to come to the table with solutions that will keep people alive so that we can connect them to care,” she said.

“We need to try all of the measures that are being recommended to us by experts – experts with lived experience, experts on the health front and, in fact, experts from law enforcement as well.”

Beginning Tuesday, British Columbians 18 and older will be able to carry up to a cumulative total of 2.5 grams of illicit opioids, crack and powder cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA without risk of arrest or criminal charges.

Under rules established by Ottawa and the province, police will not confiscate the drugs. Police may offer resource cards with contacts for health and social services, but recipients will not be required to seek treatment. The production, trafficking, sharing and exportation of these drugs will remain illegal.

Supporters say the move is a critical step in overhauling punitive drug laws that have caused more harm than good and are incompatible with government and public health messaging that addiction is a health issue.

The change, made possible through a Health Canada exemption from federal drug laws, is in effect for three years, until Jan. 31, 2026, at which point it could be revoked or replaced with another exemption.

It does not apply in certain areas, such as on K-12 school premises, at child care facilities, in airports or in vehicles operated by a minor. And decriminalizing possession will not address the volatile illicit drug supply that has killed more than 11,000 British Columbians since 2016, the year a public health emergency was declared in response to skyrocketing overdose deaths.

Since December, municipal and RCMP officers have been completing a mandatory, 45-minute online training module from the Canadian Police Knowledge Network to learn details of the exemption and what 2.5 grams of various drugs looks like. It is expected that all officers will complete this training by Tuesday.

Some police forces are including additional training; B.C. RCMP will have further online instruction this spring on how the exemption intersects with existing laws and guidance, for example, while the Vancouver Police Department has added in-person training to cover details specific to the city, such as changes to the intake process at the municipal jail.

Vancouver Police Deputy Chief Fiona Wilson, who has been involved in the government’s effort to decriminalize drugs since the beginning as the representative for the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police, said she is hopeful the change will help reverse the province’s troubling surge in drug deaths.

“While I truly believe that decriminalization of possession of small amounts of illicit drugs is only one small piece of a larger puzzle, it is a piece of the puzzle,” she said.

“I think that if we can work on all of those different pieces as well – including safe supply, access to treatment, drug testing, increased resources for people who are interested in seeking health support for substance use, hopefully we will see some change in those numbers.”

Victoria Police Inspector Conor King, a drug specialist of more than 20 years, said the hope is that the policy change will remove the stigma of drug use that keeps some people from seeking help.

“Some people in our communities want help with their addiction to illegal drugs, but they live in fear of being labelled a criminal, so they stay in the shadows and never seek treatment,” he said. “Decriminalization is a monumental step toward removing that barrier. And for some, it will empower them to reach out to friends and family and start on a path of recovery.”

But some fear that removing criminal penalties will increase public drug use and related social disorder. In Merritt, Mayor Michael Goetz is skeptical that decriminalization will have any impact on stigma or connections to treatment, and worries it will mean police no longer respond to calls about drug use in public spaces.

Mr. Goetz said Merritt is consulting with a lawyer about introducing a citywide bylaw that would prohibit the use of illicit substances in certain areas, similar to smoking bylaws, and will move as soon as it receives legal guidance.

“Basically what we’re going to be looking at is the fact that you’re allowed to carry, but you can’t use, so that’s where we would be able to get RCMP involvement,” Mr. Goetz said. “We’re not going to bylaw every single area of town, but the more important places like the downtown core, and places where people gather, such as the pool or the civic centre.”

Deputy Chief Wilson said both the BC Association of Chiefs of Police and the Vancouver Police Department had already raised the issue during the exemption application process.

“We always teach our police officers that when they approach someone, they need to make sure that they have the grounds to engage with that individual … so there are some circumstances where it will not be a police matter, to be quite frank,” she said, citing as a potential scenario someone calling 911 to report public drug use.

“I’m always concerned about putting our officers in a position where they are not on firm ground in terms of having the legal authority to approach and engage with somebody, because if they don’t have that authority, and things go wrong, then anything that flows from that interaction could be criticized.”

Oregon became the first U.S. state to decriminalize simple possession in February, 2021. Under the Drug Addiction and Recovery Act, also known as Measure 110, people caught with small amounts of drugs receive a citation, similar to a traffic ticket, with the maximum fine of US$100 being waived if they phone a hotline for a health assessment. Measure 110 also allocated cannabis tax revenues to expanding treatment services.

A government audit released this month found that only 119 people phoned the hotline in the first 15 months. And of 16,000 people who accessed services in the first year, about 60 per cent sought harm-reduction supplies and services, while less than 1 per cent wanted treatment, the Associated Press reported. Another 15 per cent got help with housing needs, and 12 per cent obtained peer support. Some lawmakers say these figures show that drug decriminalization has failed, but its supporters urge patience.

Tera Hurst, executive director of the Health Justice Recovery Alliance, a statewide advocacy group, said while Measure 110 committed more than US$300-million in cannabis tax revenues to health and social service providers in the program’s first two years, only one-tenth of that amount was distributed in the first year. The remainder was not distributed until the second half of 2022, with many receiving organizations still in the early stages of operation. Further, the measure is not intended to fund services already covered by Medicaid, such as residential treatment, she said.

That thousands of people accessed harm-reduction supplies and services should be seen as a success in the face of a toxic drug crisis, she said.

“I think we’ve been socialized to have a very narrow view of treatment,” Ms. Hurst said. “When it comes to substance use, we know that there are a lot of different interventions that can be effective for people … Saying that housing plus outpatient care isn’t treatment is missing the mark on understanding what these interventions do and why they’re so important.”

In B.C., the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions notes that the province’s 2021 budget pledged $500-million over three years for mental health and substance use services – the largest such investment in this area in B.C. history. Of this, $152-million is earmarked for treatment of opioid use disorder specifically, $133-million for treatment and recovery services and $45-million for overdose prevention.

Separately, the province has also promised $164-million over the next three years for complex care housing for up to 500 people with overlapping mental health, substance use, trauma and complex health challenges, such as acquired brain injuries and developmental disabilities. And, Ms. Whiteside said her ministry will continue to work with regulatory colleges and health care providers to increase access to pharmaceutical alternatives to illicit drugs, also called safe or safer supply.

Asked how the province will measure success, Ms. Whiteside said the Canadian Institute for Health Research is funding one formal evaluation of B.C.’s decriminalization pilot, while B.C.’s decriminalization core planning table will also conduct its own review.

“I think one of the most important elements of success will be a sense that we are contributing to a change in the public discussion around stigma and that we see more people coming forward for care and treatment,” she said.