British Columbia is no stranger to drug reform. Indeed, we’ve reported about how magic mushroom dispensaries in Vancouver have been selling out in the open without fear of local authorities. 

It’s a welcome change for Canadians who feared prosecution if they took a walk on the psychedelic side. It’s partly because of a shift in focus towards cracking down on opioid gangs. These are chief culprits of the worsening opioid epidemic in Canada. However, experts believe that decriminalising the safer non-addictive drugs alone may not be enough to solve the crisis. 

Perhaps it’s time for a more radical approach? 

British Columbia to Decriminalise Possession of All Drugs by 2023

Starting January 31, 2023, people in British Columbia who are found with less than 2.5 grams of illegal drugs, including fentanyl, heroin, and MDMA, will not be arrested by authorities. This comes after Justin Trudeau’s federal government decriminalised the use and possession of virtually all drugs in the Canadian province. 

(Photo by Alejandro Luengo on Unsplash)

The massive change in policy was announced by Federal Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett and her counterpart in Vancouver, Sheila Malcolmson. The new law is meant to improve the opioid epidemic. This epidemic has affected Vancouver the most out of all provinces in Canada. 

However! It is crucial to note that only the use and possession of illegal drugs will be decriminalised. Their sale and distribution will not be. The legislation makes it clear that those who supply illegal drugs, particularly those laced with the killer fentanyl, will still be arrested and charged by authorities. 

It also doesn’t extend to those caught using or possessing drugs in elementary or secondary schools, child-care facilities, or airports. Those who are bound by the Canadian military’s disciplinary code are not included as well. 

Removing the Stigma of Drugs

It may seem like a drastic change in drug policy for such a major city. But, Vancouver’s Health Minister Sheila Malcolmson believes that the only way to remove the stigma of drug addiction — and for affected people to not be scared to ask for medical help — is to decriminalise their usage, full stop. 

(Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash)

She wrote in a statement:

“Stigma drives people to hide their drug use, avoid health care and use alone…Through province-wide decriminalisation, we can reduce the fear and shame that keep people silent about their drug use, and support people to reach out for help, life-saving support, and treatment.”

Once you have might expected cops to seize the drugs if you’re caught using them. Now they will simply point you towards addiction and health services nearby. Those who are caught with under 2.5 grams of hard drugs will also no longer be punished with jail time. This law will come into effect in 2023. 

Last Ditch Effort to Save Lives

Maybe you’re wondering why the official threshold for drugs is quite low at 2.5 grams max. British Columbia policymakers, in their original request, had asked Trudeau’s federal government for a limit of 4.5 grams. However, they were told to lower it first. At least the suits did allow BC to decriminalise the possession of almost all drugs. An initially tighter limit is to be exepected. Compromise is key to progress, dontcha think?

(Photo by Aditya Chinchure on Unsplash)

Led by social democrats in the New Democratic Party (NDP), BC’s crop of new leaders have come up with this plan as a last ditch effort to save lives. By enticing people affected by the drug crisis to ask for help from doctors, nurses, and first responders without having to be afraid of punishment, BC might just ease the death toll due to opioid overdose. 

The numbers do not lie; the decades-long war on drugs has been a failure. Last year, illegal drugs, especially those laced with fentanyl, killed 2,224 British Columbians. That’s a rise of over 400% in the last seven years. So much so that by July 2021, there were 67% more fatal drug overdoses than covid deaths in BC.

Big Step Towards Harm Reduction

The growing trend of decriminalising recreational drugs — including the safe ones such as psilocybin from shrooms and magic truffles — is not just because they are no where near as dangerous as once perceived. More importantly, policies such as the one in British Columbia are calculated to help cure addiction, encourage people to seek help, and undo decades of damage done by the War on Drugs. Such as incarceration based on drug charges, for instance.

(Photo by Elia Pellegrini on Unsplash)

In an interview with Psychedelic Spotlight, PSYC Corporation’s Drug Policy Advisor and American Public Defender Brad Schelsinger explained what might happen next:

“The decision of the BC government to move away from the decades-long failure of global drug policy and decriminalise the possession and use of small quantities of drugs is a most welcome sight.

“While not a panacea, this is undoubtedly a big step in the direction of a harm reduction and evidence-based approach to drug policy. As Portugal’s highly successful 20-plus year experience with a similar decriminalisation approach shows — eliminating criminal penalties and the possibility of incarceration for drug possession and use results in less death and disease, reductions in long-term addiction rates, increased rates of people seeking voluntary treatment, and less human caging.”

Bold Action, Policy Change

Federal Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett spoke about this historic update on drug policy and how it can stop the opioid overdose crisis:

“For far too long, this wave of loss has been a reality in British Columbia and across the country. 

“Today, we take the first steps in the much-needed bold action and significant policy change.”

Bennett also unveiled a new budget of $11.78 million to bolster programs for substance abuse and addictions in British Columbia.

Addiction as Health Issue, Not Criminal

Decriminalising drugs does not equal legalisation. But, experts believe that BC’s policy shift is the correct approach to the opioid overdose crisis. The only way to fix the rise in addiction is to treat it as a health issue, not a criminal one. By reducing the stigma associated with drug use, people in need of help will no longer be afraid of seeking it.

(Photo by Mat Napo on Unsplash)

According to Malcolmson, this new law is a “major step in changing how we view addiction and drug use in British Columbia”. She further said that:

“The fear of being criminalised has led many people to hide their addiction and use drugs alone. And using drugs alone can mean dying alone, particularly in this climate of tragically increased illicit drug toxicity.”

Vancouver and Toronto have also filed for exemption with regards to decriminalising possession of tiny amounts of illegal drugs. The latter two requests are both still under review by the federal government. 

For a province in Canada to be allowed to decriminalise illicit substances, it must first show the health minister that doing so is “necessary for a medical or scientific purpose or is otherwise in the public interest

Even Cops Are on Their Side

The opioid overdose situation in Canada has gotten bad. So bad, that even their local police forces have expressed support to decriminalise illicit drugs. It’s a surprise, but a welcome one for sure! Among these voices is that of the Canadian Association of the Chiefs of Police, and the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police. Such a public stand only proves that the real criminals are not those who suffer from addiction. It is those who traffic, produce, import, or export hard drugs in the streets despite the death toll.

(Photo by AJ Colores on Unsplash)

NDP MP Gord Johns, leader of the national decriminalisation bill for Canada, said that what happened to BC is “good news” but that the law must extend to the entire nation, as well:

“The families of thousands of Canadians are burying loved ones right across Canada right now…We need a national approach. [Liberals are taking] a piecemeal, incremental approach that is costing lives every day.”

The End of the War on Drugs?

It’s a ballsy move to decriminalise the use and possession of all recreational substances. But it’s a crucial step to end the War on Drugs. Should British Columbia have the same favourable results as Portugal, it is almost certain that other major provinces in Canada — and other regions worldwide — will follow the same change in drug policy. 

(Photo via Wholecelium)

As of today, a bill to decriminalise the possession of drugs all over Canada is being pushed by the federal wing of the NDP. Though the ruling majority of Liberals have said that now is not the right time for such a drastic change, this bill could still pop up in the future. Especially if British Columbia delivers positive results in 2023!

Two fingers crossed, eh?