BC decriminalizes personal possession of certain illicit drugs

The decision is an effort to destigmatize and address the overdose crisis

The photo is of the streets of Vancouver. The street is empty except for one individual crossing the street.
The BC decriminalization will begin in January 2023 for a three year period. PHOTO: Stephen Tam / Unsplash

By: Pranjali J Mann, News Writer

Health Canada declared a three year exemption for BC from criminal convictions in case of certain illicit drugs for personal use. The exemption trial will begin January 31, 2023 and last until January 31, 2026. The drugs will continue to be illegal, but their possession in small quantities of 2.5 grams or less will not result in any criminal charges in BC. This step comes as a measure to reduce stigma pertaining to use of drugs and increase accessibility for “life-saving support and services.”

To understand this provincial recommendation, The Peak interviewed Dr. Alissa Greer, an assistant professor in the department of criminology at SFU and expert on drug policies. She said the drug overdose crisis “has been the result of our criminal drug laws and prohibition.”

Welcoming this announcement, Greer said, “One of the ways that decriminalization is effective is that it can impact stigma. We won’t look at drug use or possession as a criminal issue; we have the potential to look at it as a social or health issue. So, in the long run this is certainly great.”  

However, Greer mentioned the importance of addressing the root cause of the overdose crisis. “The cause of the overdose crisis today has been the result of our drug laws and prohibition. Specifically, the illegal drug markets and the supply of drugs in that market — which are extremely unpredictable — because the market itself is unregulated. Because of this people can’t predict the toxicity and the potency of their drugs and that is more or less why people are overdosing.”   

She explained that decriminalization is just a small first step, but not enough in addressing the issue of a toxic drug supply. “Decriminalization is not a solution to the overdose crisis. Decriminalization will not make an impact on the supply of drugs, which is the reason why we have the overdose crisis. If anything, it might actually make the overdose crisis worse.” 

She also noted the policy change won’t come into effect until January 2023 and only applies to a certain amount of drugs. Another concern with the announcement is the limit of “cumulative threshold of 2.5 grams.” She emphasized this was a “very small amount of drugs” and doesn’t decriminalize all possessions. 

The possessions limit of 2.5 grams may not be feasible for all individuals. “Maybe they live in a rural or remote community and have to buy larger amounts. Or some people share drugs, and some might be buying for themselves, or others,” said Greer. 

Greer emphasized the need to address the supply issue first, in order to tackle the overdose crisis. “People are overdosing because they have to rely on a toxic supply of drugs, and so expanding access to a safer and regulated supply is the only thing that can really address this crisis.” 

The same sentiment was echoed by Michael Crawford, president of BC Association of Social Workers, in a statement. “Though we are so pleased the federal government has granted this exemption, it falls sorely short of what is needed. As it stands, this change is not enough — it’s our hope that discussion on the exemption limit continues and that a higher, more practical limit is set quickly: the federal government cannot afford to be performative when it comes to people’s lives.”