Canadian province decriminalizes drugs to tackle overdose deaths

The Canadian province of British Columbia has said it is decriminalizing small amounts of certain drugs to help tackle the number of drug overdose deaths.

During the three-year pilot program, which began Jan. 31, no one 18 or older will be charged if caught in possession of 2.5 grams of certain illegal drugs, including heroin, methamphetamine, ecstasy, among others, for personal use.

“We know that criminalization drives people to use alone. With the supply of increasingly toxic drugs, use alone can be fatal,” said Jennifer Whiteside, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, on Monday. British Columbia, in a press release. “Decriminalizing people who use drugs eliminates the fear and shame associated with substance use and ensures they feel safer when seeking life-saving supports. This is an essential step in connecting more people to services and supports as the province continues to add at an unprecedented rate.”

At least 2,272 people died of drug overdoses in the province in 2022, officials said. At least 2,306 people died in 2021.

The number of “illegal drug toxicity deaths” was around 6.4 deaths per day in November and December last year, authorities said.

The Canadian national flag flies at half-mast over the City Hall building in Vancouver, British Columbia, on March 11, 2021.

Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images, FILE

“The shocking number of lives lost to the overdose crisis requires bold action and significant policy change. I have thoroughly considered and carefully considered the public health and public safety impacts of this request” said Carolyn Bennett, Canada’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. , said in a statement. “Eliminating criminal penalties for those who carry small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use will reduce stigma and harm and provide another tool for British Columbia to end the overdose crisis.”

Although some drugs are decriminalized, Bennett said the exemption does not mean they are legal. This means that adults will no longer be arrested, charged or have their drugs seized. Instead, police will offer information about available health and social supports and help with referrals upon request, officials said.

Possession of any drug will continue to be a criminal offense on school grounds and in daycares, officials said.

“Decriminalization is an important part of an integrated approach, with safer supply and public health supports, to divert people who use drugs from the criminal justice system and into health services and care pathways because that substance use is a health issue, not a criminal,” Deputy Chief Constable Fiona Wilson of the Vancouver Police Department said in a statement Monday. “This approach has the potential to address the harms associated substance use, reduce stigma, prevent overdose deaths and increase access to health and social services.”

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