British Columbia will launch a quarterly dashboard to track the progress of its new three-year pilot of drug decriminalization, according to the federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions.
Carolyn Bennett described the commitment Monday in an interview after a news conference in Vancouver, saying indicators will include “morbidity and mortality, in terms of overdoses; overall rates of substance use, but also the interactions with the criminal justice system; the people who have been charged for simple possession, or trends in drug seizures.”
The province is “going to do some of the qualitative research around stigma and attitudes toward use, perception of public safety by local residents,” she added.
On Tuesday, B.C. becomes the first province in Canada to remove criminal penalties for carrying small amounts of illicit drugs. Under a three-year exemption from federal law, British Columbians found with less than a total of 2.5 grams of illicit opioids, crack and powder cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA no longer face risk of arrest or criminal charges. As well, police will no longer seize these drugs.
Instead, officers can hand out resource cards with information on local health and social services. The B.C. government says one goal of decriminalization is to remove the stigma associated with drug use and addiction, in hopes that more people will seek help. The production, trafficking, sharing and exportation of these drugs will remain illegal.
Asked whether the dashboard will include treatment indicators such as people in residential treatment, or people prescribed medications for opioid use disorder such as methadone and Suboxone, Ms. Bennett said B.C. officials are still determining health care metrics. Those could include the number of resource cards distributed and the number of connections to treatment that those cards facilitated, she said.
The B.C. Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions did not immediately respond to questions from The Globe and Mail about treatment indicators.
In a separate briefing earlier in the day, a government representative said it will be looking at indicators related to criminal justice, health and stigma. It will also work with third party researchers, community groups, police agencies and Indigenous groups to understand the impacts of decriminalization. The province said it was still in the early stages of conversations with Health Canada about the frequency of reporting.
The Canadian Institutes of Health Research is funding a separate review of the decriminalization pilot that will build on the B.C. data.
In a letter sent to the previous B.C. minister of mental health and additions prior to the granting of the three-year exemption, Health Canada representatives wrote that the province “will need to identify the indicators, the data sources and the frequency with which data will be collected to monitor and measure progress against the defined objectives, short, medium and long-term expected outcomes/impacts.
“A monthly dashboard must include, at a minimum, indicators for the following themes: access to harm reduction, health, social and economic issues, and criminal justice. For all indicators, disaggregated data based on age, gender, race, and location, will be essential to understanding the impact of the exemption on at-risk populations.”
Asked why the federal government is supporting decriminalization in one province rather than implementing it nationally, Ms. Bennett said the legal change must first be monitored carefully. B.C.’s application was successful because the province showed that it would have adequate health and social services, training of law enforcement, public education, Indigenous outreach and comprehensive data, she said.
“We believe B.C. is absolutely on the right track in those areas,” Ms. Bennett said. “Together, we will be monitoring the results to ascertain that it’s in the public interest.”