Skip to main content

For decades now, most medical professionals have held the view that people suffering from drug addiction have a health issue.

In many ways, it’s no different than people who drink to excess every day – they have an addiction problem, too. The difference, however, is that people with a drug problem could be sent to jail and have a criminal record for life if they were caught with a small amount of cocaine or heroin, while the guy walking out of the liquor store with a 26-ouncer of Johnnie Walker Red and 12 beers had no such worry.

This has always been a challenge for those working in the field of mental health and addiction: why was one particular group of people who had issues with addiction treated as criminals, while another group experiencing issues with a different type of substance – alcohol – was not? After all, both have a serious health problem.

Mental health and addictions specialists, who have studied these matters on a deeper level and spent time with people with addictions on a daily basis – as opposed to offering opinions about them from legislatures and the House of Commons – have long understood the damage done by the criminalization of drug use.

For decades, drug users have been stigmatized as bad people – common criminals with records to prove it. The criminalization of drug use has also intersected with systemic racism – Indigenous people and people of colour in Canada are overrepresented in drug charges, incarcerations and the criminal justice system as a whole.

On Tuesday, the government of British Columbia, with the help of Ottawa, answered the call that medical professionals have been making for years by decriminalizing small amounts of hard drugs on a three-year trial basis starting in January, 2023. A person can possess up to 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine or amphetamines without worrying about being arrested and appearing before a judge.

This is below the threshold of 4.5 grams that many in the addictions field felt was more appropriate. Of course, there is already criticism that this new measure will fail because most users carry more than 2.5 grams of drugs on them.

Police, meantime, say 85 per cent of those arrested for drug use are carrying two grams or less.

Explainer: Canada announced a plan to decriminalize some illicit drugs in British Columbia. Here’s what you need to know

The decriminalization of hard drugs in B.C. falls short. But it is a step in the right direction

Ottawa knows there’s an overdose crisis. It knows the answers. So why won’t it act?

I get people’s frustration, especially those who work in the addictions-response field. They’ve been slamming their heads against the wall for decades about this. They’ve heard over and over from drug users that the stigma of having a criminal record for possession has made them reluctant to seek treatment. They’ve also heard from many who have acknowledged how jail time and a criminal record wrecked their life and led to a downward spiral that included even more drug use.

This move by the B.C. government should help – to what degree remains to be seen.

People are upset that the federal Liberal government isn’t introducing a national decriminalization program. Fair enough, but that ignores political realities in Canada. Can you imagine the reaction if Ottawa told the Alberta or Saskatchewan governments that drug users can’t be arrested or prosecuted? Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was already quick to denounce the decriminalization announcement as a dangerous “slippery slope.”

Politicians generally are far behind the experts when it comes to changing policy. They are naturally cautious, worried about doing something that might offend “the majority” which would imperil their re-election chances. Decriminalizing drugs would fall into the category of measures that many Canadians might have a problem with.

Too bad for them. Most have no clue what they’re talking about when it comes to drug addiction, haven’t spent more than a minute with someone who is struggling. At some point, you have to trust the science.

What this decision is not likely to do is stop the absolute crisis we have in Canada around overdose deaths. B.C. is ground zero on this front, with more than 10,000 people having died of a suspected illicit drug overdose (fentanyl is most often the culprit killing these people) since 2016. If you want to help people from killing themselves with drugs, you need to give them access to a safer supply.

That is the next big hill to climb in Canada, one that represents an even bigger challenge than decriminalization has. But we either try and help people in a meaningful way – a way that will actually work – or we continue down the path we’re on and accept that thousands of preventable deaths will occur each year from drug overdoses.

Decriminalization is a step in the right direction when it comes to drug policy in Canada. But it is a very, very small step – and we must acknowledge that.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.