Skip to main content

Good morning. Wendy Cox in Vancouver this morning.

On Tuesday, British Columbia will become the first jurisdiction in Canada to decriminalize possessing small amounts of opioids, cocaine, ecstasy and meth. People won’t be able to sell them, but they also won’t be charged for having them, and police officers won’t be able to confiscate them.

Under the policy, police can offer users cards with contacts for health and social services, though recipients won’t be required to seek treatment.

It’s a dramatic change. When it was announced in May, Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, said it was a “vital step to keeping people alive and help connect them with the health and social support they need.” In an interview, Jennifer Whiteside, B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, said 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.”

But whether the change will make a meaningful difference in saving lives is unclear. Two years after making a similar move, Oregon is not yet seeing results.

The state, which had the second-highest rate of substance abuse in the U.S. in 2020, became the first in the the country to decriminalize drug possession when voters approved Ballot Measure 110 in 2020. The measure, among other things, reclassified possession of drugs such as heroin, cocaine and meth so that, rather than having charges laid, those found with the drugs are handed maximum $100 fines, which are waived if they call a health assessment health line.

But an Oregon government audit released earlier this month found that only 119 people had phoned the hotline in the first 15 months, amounting to a cost of over $7,000 per call. And of 16,000 people who accessed related services in the first year, only about one per cent wanted treatment. A further 60 per cent sought harm reduction supplies and services, the Associated Press reported. Another 15 per cent got help with housing needs and 12 per cent obtained peer support.

The audit also found that, before M110, Oregon had no adults serving time in prison for drug possession alone. That’s because existing sentencing guidelines would have prevented it. So the measure made no impact on the number of those incarcerated.

The audit is clear that there is still much work to be done before determining if M110 has been successful.

British Columbia’s decriminalization move is different than M110. In Oregon, decriminalization is part of an initiative that includes provisions aimed at increasing the amount of funding going toward drug rehabilitation. The bulk of the audit was devoted to the bumpy rollout of those measures. B.C.’s decriminalization plan does not take a carrot-and-stick approach. There is no nudge toward treatment.

Supporters in B.C. are hopeful decriminalization will lessen the stigma of addiction, leaving people struggling with drug use more comfortable seeking help. It will ensure police can’t seize drugs, meaning desperate people will not to have to seek out more.

But some municipal leaders worry decriminalization will make drug use seem permissible, and they worry about more open use. In Merritt, Mayor Michael Goetz said his city is getting legal advice about introducing a citywide bylaw prohibiting the use of illicit substances in some areas, similar to smoking bylaws.

The Globe’s editorial board concluded that B.C.’s new policy is a necessary one to save lives, but that it is not sufficient.

“It’s necessary because the scale of the problem demands all useful policies be deployed. But the change in the law plays only a supporting role in helping people to the goal of seeking treatment and succeeding in recovery.”

This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe