A Canadian province decriminalizes hard drugs to fight overdoses

The Canadian province of British Columbia follows the Oregon model of decriminalizing possession of small amounts of hard drugs, including heroin, cocaine, fentanyl, morphine, methamphetamine and ecstasy. The adoption of this pilot plan is aimed at combating the growing overdose crisis.

Starting this Tuesday, adults (18 years and older) may possess up to 2.5 grams of these substances. The Canadian federal government granted the request to the West Coast province to conduct this experiment for three years.

Canada already legalized the use of recreational cannabis throughout the country in 2018

Canada already legalized the use of recreational cannabis throughout the country in 2018. This modification on hard drugs does not mean that these substances will be sold in stores, as is the case with marijuana, and trafficking across the border remains prohibited. It will also not be legal to have these drugs in school or child care zones, or at airports.

“In our view, the use of these drugs is a health issue, not a criminal matter,” said Jennifer Whitside, the province’s minister of mental health. “We need to take additional steps to address the shame and stigma that comes with it,” she added. This measure, she clarified, will make it easier for those affected to feel more comfortable when it comes to seeking support to combat their addiction, the main goal of this initiative.

Dave Hamm, a contributor to the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), distributes packages of narcotics tested for adulteration

Jennifer Gauthier / Reuters

“It is a monumental change in drug policy that favors the promotion of relationships of trust and support in social and health services instead of increased crime,” he added.

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Although these drugs will continue to be illegal, possession of these small amounts (all of them combined up to 2.5 grams) will not result in arrest. Instead, information on available healthcare resources will be provided. There are experts who question that this limit is not enough for the habits of many addicts.

Oregon, on the US Pacific coast, opened the trail in 2020

Oregon, on the US Pacific coast, opened the path in 2020 and so far the results are not as favorable as thought. Canadian health experts also note that the experiment takes a long time to bear fruit.

British Columbia has been ground zero for drug experimentation since 1959, when the world’s first clinic for methadone care opened. Since then, he has tried various programs for “drug harm reduction” with the concept that addiction cannot be treated as a crime and, simultaneously, as a disease.

Despite this much more open mindset, overdoses in British Columbia continue to rise, causing high death rates. This province is the epicenter of the crisis of overdoses and substance trafficking, with more than 32,000 deaths nationwide since 2016.


Garth Mullins, a member of the Vancouver Area Drug Users Network, and attorney Caitlin Shane participate in an informational meeting

Jennifer Gauthier / Reuters

Overdoses caused last year a mortality rate of 41.7% per 100,000 inhabitants in this province, or five times more than the 1996 record, according to official data. By comparison, in the US this index stood at 28.3 per 100,000 inhabitants.

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The problem has been aggravated by the covid pandemic, as the illegal supply chain as well as health supports have been broken, which has caused people to resort to more toxic drugs. At least 10,000 deaths have been counted since this province declared a state of emergency in 2016.

Things have gone further. Preliminary data indicated that in British Columbia there were 2,272 deaths in 2022, the second highest number of deaths, only 34 fewer cases than those certified in 2021.

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated that this is the first exception of its kind and that this circumstance of not prosecuting small possession is intended to establish the idea that it is a health problem and not a police problem. In other communities in the North American country, they pay close attention to how this works and its results.

Vancouver, the main city, famous as a ski center with a high economic level and restaurants, will be the place where the application of this measure will be most visible. Tourists are daily surprised with streets around commercial areas full of addicts in full action.

Numerous health specialists argued that decriminalization will allow patients to use drugs in safer spaces where they have access to medical treatment.

Thousands of police officers have received training to adapt to this change. “For years we have de facto enforced that people with small amounts are not arrested,” a Vancouver police spokesman explained. But he acknowledged that this development will mean fewer seizures of small amounts of drugs.

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