BC granted a three-year exemption for drug possession

Certain illegal drugs will be included in the exemption starting Jan. 31 until 2026

Starting Jan. 31 until 2026, the possession of 2.5 grams of certain illegal drugs will be decriminalized in B.C. (File photo)

Starting Jan. 31 until 2026, the possession of 2.5 grams of certain illegal drugs will be decriminalized in B.C. (File photo)

Starting Jan. 31 until 2026, the possession of 2.5 grams of certain illegal drugs will be decriminalized in British Columbia, including opioids like cocaine and fentanyl.  

The three-year exemption was granted under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA). People aged 18 and older won’t be subjected to criminal charges for possessing the small amount, and instead will be offered information about health and social supports, according to the government’s website

“It’s not a decriminalization of drugs. It’s a decriminalization of people who possess illicit drugs, and that’s a really important distinction,” says Leslie McBain, Moms Stop the Harm co-founder.

Moms Stop the Harm formed in 2016 as a movement to raise awareness about the ongoing drug toxicity crisis. They advocate against failed drug policies and provide support to impacted families. The overdose crisis was declared a public health emergency in 2016.

From Jan. 1 to Oct. 31, the BC Coroners Service reported 1,827 illicit drug toxicity deaths, averaging about six each day this year. Deaths reported among adults aged 19 to 39 and 40 to 59 show an increase this year. The report notes that 55 per cent of drug toxicity deaths occurred in private residences, 28 per cent in residences like social housing, and 16 per cent outside in vehicles, parks, or streets. No deaths have been reported at supervised consumption or drug overdose prevention sites. 

McBain says that Moms Stop the Harm had advocated for 4.5 grams, but the federal government “at the last minute” said 2.5 grams. 

“2.5 grams is a very small amount. Most people who have substance use disorder or are addicted, use far more than 2.5 grams,” McBain says. 

“So that’s where it stands right now. It does not include youth, so people under 18 [will still] get arrested and go into the criminal justice system.” 

The province will work with levels of governments, health authorities, law enforcement, Indigenous communities, and people with lived experiences to create public health and safety indicators to monitor and evaluate the outcomes of the exemption, according to the federal government’s announcement

A Letter of Requirements was sent to former B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson to support the successful implementation of the exemption. It lists alternative measures like expanding harm reduction services, and continued engagement with people who use drugs, law enforcement, racialized and diverse communities, and Indigenous communities. 

“We’re really happy to get decriminalization. It is a big step for Canada and a big step certainly for B.C.,” she says.

In a report to the provincial government, the Select Standing Committee on Health recommended raising public awareness and expanding anti-stigma efforts according to the needs of high-risk groups such as “Indigenous people (especially women), men aged 19 to 39, and people working in the trades, transportation, or as equipment operators.” 

In B.C., overdose is the primary cause of death for adults aged 19 to 39 and the third most likely for those under the age of 19, according to the report. The committee recommended increasing funds for integrated mental health and substance use supports. 

The committee also recommended an increase in public funded treatment and detox services, addressing issues related to prescriptions, ensuring availability of overdose prevention sites, and expansion of the Take-Home Naloxone program.

To address the disproportionate impact of the overdose crisis on the Indigenous communities, the committee recommended funding Indigenous-led and designed culturally appropriate substance use services.

“The fact is that the people who made these decisions, are bureaucrats and politicians and police at the federal level — not the people who it affects,” McBain says. 

While the exemption is a step in the right direction and will have an impact on drug policy in the long run, McBain says it will not stop the losses. 

“I hope for the future [there] is permanent, realistic decriminalization of people who carry illicit drugs,” she says. 

For families who have lost someone or have a loved one using drugs, McBain recommends the support groups Healing Hearts and Holding Hope