Ottawa grants British Columbia’s request to decriminalize small quantities of drugs


The first-of-its-kind exemption from federal drug laws would allow users to possess small quantities of cocaine, opioids and methamphetamine

The Liberal government will exempt the entire province of British Columbia from federal drug possession laws, allowing users to have small quantities of cocaine, opioids and methamphetamine without fear of criminal charges.

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Minister of Mental Health Carolyn Bennett announced the exemption in Vancouver on Tuesday, but it won’t come into force until January 31, 2023. It will stop police from laying criminal charges or confiscating the drugs of anyone carrying less than 2.5 grams of cocaine, opioids, methamphetamine and MDMA, or as it is commonly known, ecstasy.

Bennett stressed the government was not offering full legalization, but taking a harm reduction approach to drug use.

“For too many years, the ideological opposition to harm reduction has cost lives,” she said. “Despite the best efforts in increasing harm reduction, the crisis has worsened, the increasingly toxic, illicit drug supply has exacerbated the already heartbreaking loss.”

The exemption will be in place for three years, but can be extended in the future.

The B.C. government applied for the exemption last fall in the hopes of curbing rising drug overdose deaths. It will be subject to peer-reviewed research and could be altered or canceled during the three years it is in place.

Trafficking in drugs would still be illegal and the exemption would not apply around schools, daycare centres or airports. B.C. had sought an exemption for up to 4.5 grams, but Bennett said the research they have done showed 2.5 grams would cover the majority of people currently charged.

The exemption is the first of its kind in Canada, but the City of Toronto has requested a similar one and Edmonton City Council is also in the process of asking the federal government for an exemption.

Bennett said B.C.’s exemption, which includes a requirement for training for police officers and more treatment options for drug users, could be used as a model.

“This successful application will very much assist other jurisdictions from making applications and knowing what are the criteria that it needs to be put in place,” she said.

Despite that, Bennett said she is not yet prepared to support an NDP private member’s bill that calls for nationwide decriminalization, because she argues that bill doesn’t have the necessary safeguards.

“It doesn’t put in place the guardrails around implementation.”

The private member’s bill from NDP MP Gord Johns is set to come to a vote on Wednesday. In addition to nationwide decriminalization, it would also set up a process for clearing records of those previously convicted.

Johns said in a statement the government shouldn’t be offering a partial solution to a national crisis.

“While this announcement is an important step, it will leave Canadians living outside of that province asking themselves ‘if this is OK for British Columbia, why it is not for the rest of the country? And why is the Liberal government not moving forward with a national solution,” he said.

Michael Barrett, Conservative shadow minister for health, said Canada has an obligation to “help people get better,” but suggested Ottawa should prioritize other measures.

“Canadians struggling with addiction deserve compassion with access to treatment and a path to recovery and we believe the federal government should be prioritizing that care by expanding treatment and recovery programs so they can get help.”

Alberta’s Conservative premier also has reservations. Premier Jason Kenney said the decision is a “slippery slope” and is counter-productive to solving the twin problems of illicit drugs and helping those recover from addiction.

Kenney said other provinces should have been consulted first, particularly neighbouring Alberta.

The move also violates a promise Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made not to undertake such action, he said.

B.C. has been ground zero for the opioid epidemic, with more than 2,000 overdose deaths last year, ten times higher than what it was a decade ago. Most police forces in the province have stopped arresting people for simple possession and federal prosecutors have been instructed since 2020 to avoid prosecuting cases.

Read full article here.

Ryan Tumiltry – National Post – 2022-06-01.

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