Good morning. Wendy Cox here in Vancouver.
Ottawa has cleared the way for British Columbia to become the first province in Canada to decriminalize possession of small amounts of “hard” drugs such as illicit fentanyl, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, a tentative step that some in B.C. have criticized as too little and other provinces have said they will not follow.
Federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, Carolyn Bennett, made the announcement Tuesday after British Columbia’s government asked for the measure more than a year ago. As of next January, police will no longer be able to charge people they find with 2.5 grams or less of those substances. Police will also not be able to confiscate the drugs and there is no requirement that people found to be in possession seek treatment. The production, trafficking and exportation of these drugs will remain illegal.
As Andrea Woo writes today, the change comes six years after B.C. declared a public-health emergency in response to skyrocketing overdose deaths from an increasingly volatile drug supply. Close to 10,000 people have died since 2016 in B.C. alone, and advocates have put pressure on governments to re-examine drug laws that they say were intended to minimize harms but have had the opposite effect.
“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 Tuesday in Vancouver.
The illicit drugs covered by the new rules are opioids including heroin and fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA – the substances most commonly associated with toxic drug deaths, and most commonly seized by police. Police will maintain discretion to arrest and recommend charges for possessing other substances.
But the exemption doesn’t go as far as British Columbia originally asked. B.C.’s request was for Ottawa to decriminalize amounts up to 4.5 grams – almost double what Ottawa moved on.
Ryan McNeil, director of harm reduction research at the Yale Program in Addiction Medicine and an affiliated scientist at the BC Centre on Substance Use, said the 2.5-gram threshold fails to capture a large proportion of 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.
“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,” he told Andrea.
Decriminalization is not legalization. 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.
Still, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney criticized Ottawa for moving forward on a policy advocated by B.C. but which is not one other provinces support.
“This is a violation of a campaign commitment given by the Prime Minister in the federal election last year,” Mr. Kenney said. “He said that his government would not do this. We have not been consulted, nor have any of the provinces apart from B.C. that I know of and yet this does have national implications.”
Alberta is also struggling with high opioid deaths, but Mr. Kenney argued Tuesday that “the notion that decriminalizing drugs will have a significant effect on the overdose crisis is not supported by the data.” He said B.C.’s move sends the wrong message. He also said the federal government should be focusing on more resources for combatting drug trafficking.
Manitoba Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen says the province is focused on cutting off the illicit drug supply while offering addiction treatment for users.
But Andrea Sereda, a doctor at a London, Ont., clinic that works with vulnerable drug users, welcomed the move.
“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.”
Like many advocates, she would like to see governments not just decriminalize but legalize and regulate drugs. That way, users would not have to depend on street dealers and risk their lives.
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.