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A cyclist rides past hundreds of flags on display in Vancouver on APril 14 symbolizing the more than 10,000 people who have died of toxic drug overdoses in British Columbia.JESSE WINTER/Reuters

In the spring of 2019, British Columbia was three years into a public-health emergency. Illicit drug overdoses had killed more than 4,000 people. With no end in sight, the province’s top doctor proposed something radical: the decriminalization of small amounts of drugs.

The root of the idea is that addiction is a health issue, not one of criminal justice. The aim is to reduce the stigma of drug use and, by removing the threat of arrest, make it less likely that people use alone – and more likely to seek help. That could cut the number of overdose deaths.

The B.C. government immediately rejected the proposal. But as the toll of deaths escalated, in B.C. and across Canada, so did a groundswell of support for the idea. Experts already favoured decriminalization and in 2020 the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police backed it. Arresting people, they said, “has proven to be ineffective.” Polls showed a majority of Canadians agreed.

Things started to happen. Vancouver moved first. In early 2021, it formally asked Ottawa to decriminalize small amounts of otherwise illegal drugs in the city. B.C. later did the same. On Tuesday, Ottawa accepted B.C.’s provincewide request: As of Jan. 31, 2023, possession of up to 2.5 grams of drugs – opioids, cocaine, meth and ecstasy – for personal use will not be illegal in the province, for a trial period of three years.

Selling these drugs remains a crime – you won’t see anything like the litany of cannabis stores – but if a person with them is stopped by police, there will be no punishment or confiscation. Instead, police would provide information on health services and, if asked, a referral.

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

With decriminalization, the B.C. government has acknowledged what experts knew all along

The change is at once momentous – inching away from many decades of prohibition – yet cautious, not to mention overdue. The epidemic of overdoses has worsened, with more deaths than ever last year in Canada. This year so far is almost as bad. Health Canada on Tuesday called drug overdoses one of the most serious public-health threats in the country’s history – but chose to start decriminalization at what experts consider a too-low limit of 2.5 grams. B.C. requested 4.5.

And for all that, the decision deserves to be hailed. It is a major shift in public policy, and an attempt to try something new. Amid the tragedy of addiction and overdoses, new ideas are needed.

A decade ago, supervised drug-use sites in Vancouver were the centre of controversy. They are now proven as life-saving health care. From 2017 through late 2021, these facilities across Canada have seen 3.3 million visits and reversed almost 35,000 overdoses. No one died.

Decriminalization will not get people off drugs. It will not halt overdoses, or deaths. It is one policy among a suite of measures that can make a difference. It is also, for now, a limited experiment, in only one province. It will be closely monitored. Canadians will get to see how it works, and what it can (or cannot) accomplish.

The main problem in the plague of deaths is the toxic nature of street drugs. A key answer to that is what’s called a safer supply, the regulated sale of opioids to people with substance-use disorders. Ottawa has opened this avenue and B.C. is, slowly, leading. Then there are the complicated, entwined questions of mental illness, poverty, inadequate housing – and eventual treatment. Getting off opioids is very hard, and investments in treatment have not been enough. Access has to be easier, and it must be part of public health care.

Treatment, and recovery, is everyone’s ultimate goal, but to keep people alive so they can get treatment, harm reduction is essential. As this page has grimly noted, you cannot rehabilitate the dead.

What to do next is known. Ottawa last year commissioned a pair of expert reports that laid out numerous policies. An NDP bill – voted down in the House of Commons on Wednesday, the Liberals among the dissenters – advocated that change, from decriminalization and safer supply to, in the bill’s words, “universal access to recovery, treatment and harm reduction services for problematic substance use and substance use disorder.”

Through the long overdose epidemic, Canadian governments have consistently acted too slowly – there’s been watching, waiting and looking away. Tuesday was different. What’s coming in B.C. is a small experiment with potentially momentous positive results. A lot more is necessary.

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