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Possession of small amounts of illicit drugs decriminalized

Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside

The province’s decriminalization of small amounts of illicit drugs comes into effect on Tuesday, January 31.

Health Canada granted the province a subsection 56(1) exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs. Beginning Jan. 31, 2023, until Jan. 31, 2026, adults (18 and older) in B.C. will not be subject to criminal charges if they possess a small amount of certain illegal drugs for personal use.

“We know criminalization drives people to use alone. Given the increasingly toxic drug supply, using alone can be fatal,” said Jennifer Whiteside, B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, in a news release. “Decriminalizing people who use drugs breaks down the fear and shame associated with substance use and ensures they feel safer reaching out for life-saving supports. This is a vital step to get more people connected to the services and supports as the Province continues to add them at an unprecedented rate.”

This exemption does not mean drugs are legalized. The drugs included in the exemption remain illegal; however, adults who are found in possession of a cumulative total of as much as 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA for personal use will no longer be arrested, charged or have their drugs seized, if abiding by the scope and conditions of the exemption. Instead, police will offer information on available health and social supports, as well as local treatment and recovery options.

“Every day, we are losing lives to overdoses from the increasingly toxic illegal drug supply. We are committed to stopping this tragic epidemic with bold action and significant policy change,” said Carolyn Bennett, federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health. “By supporting British Columbia in this exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, our government is providing the Province with the ability to help divert people away from the criminal justice system and toward the health and social services they need. We look forward to continuous collaboration with the province to measure the public-health and public-safety outcomes, help save lives and bring an end to this crisis.”

To prepare for Jan. 31, the province has worked with police leaders to develop training resources and practical guidance, which are now available to more than 9,000 front-line police officers.

In addition, the province is hiring health authority specific positions dedicated to building connections with local service providers and people referred by police. These positions will also help connect people with resources and information on voluntary mental-health and addictions supports in their own community.

Drug possession in any amount will continue to be a criminal offence on K-12 school grounds and at licensed child care facilities. Further, decriminalization does not apply to youth 17 years old and younger. Youth found in possession of any amount of illegal drugs are subject to the federal Youth Criminal Justice Act, which offers them alternatives to criminal charges in some cases.

Together, the federal and provincial governments will be working closely to evaluate and monitor the exemption to ensure the desired outcomes of decriminalization are met and there are no unintended consequences.

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