VICTORIA — British Columbia is applying to the federal government to remove criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of illicit drugs in an effort to help more people get care in a health crisis that has claimed 7,700 lives over five years.
Sheila Malcolmson, B.C.’s mental health and addictions minister, said Monday that substance use and addiction is a public health issue and not a criminal one, which is why the province believes removing the penalties will reduce drug-use stigma and convince more people to seek life-saving treatment.
She said B.C. is the first province in the country to request an exemption from Health Canada under the Controlled Substances Act, asking to decriminalize for personal use up to 4.5 grams of illicit drugs, including heroin, fentanyl, powder and crack cocaine and methamphetamine.
The province’s application was applauded widely as a step forward in addressing the toxic drug crisis, but concerns on both sides of the issue were raised about the amount of drugs specified in the application.
“The B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police does not support the recommendations to decriminalize 4.5 grams of illicit drugs for personal use,” said association president Howard Chow, deputy chief of the Vancouver Police Department, in a statement.
Instead, the association recommends a more measured approach that will see incremental increases as required and supported by evidence, Chow said in a statement.
Police are concerned drug dealers will exploit the threshold and it could lead to public consumption increases, he said.
The Pivot Legal Society, a legal advocacy group based in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, said the possession threshold is too low and doesn’t adequately protect people who use drugs.
“The threshold of 4.5 grams is cumulative, meaning it refers to the combined quantity of drugs allowed to be carried rather than the amount permitted of each individual substance,” it said in a statement on behalf of about 10 groups and organizations, including the Vancouver Area Network of Drugs Users.
Malcolmson said B.C. is taking the next step toward helping people end the stigma of drug use and removing the threat of criminal penalty that keeps many from seeking treatment.
She said she is encouraged the federal government recently created a federal Mental Heath and Addictions Department, appointing Carolyn Bennett as minister.
“I hope this is the first item on her desk,” said Malcolmson.
Figures released in September from the BC Coroners Service show there were 1,204 deaths from illicit drugs between January and the end of July, a 28 per cent jump over the same period in 2020.
The coroner says the first seven months of this year were the deadliest since a health emergency was declared in 2016, and July was the 17th straight month in which more than 100 B.C. residents died from a toxic drug supply.
B.C.’s provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said charging people criminally for possessing small amounts of illicit drugs creates a revolving door where people face the legal system but not their health issues.
“The time to make this change is now,” she said. “This toxic drug crisis is not a criminal issue. It’s a public health issue.”
Sen. Larry Campbell, a former Vancouver mayor and B.C. chief coroner, said he supports decriminalizing small amounts of illicit drugs because he believes it will save lives.
“This is about keeping people alive,” he said. “That’s it. That’s the bottom line. It drives me crazy that people can’t get it through their heads that this is a health issue.”
Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said decades of criminalizing drug possession has not worked and a move away from a crime model to a health one has arrived.
“The goal of decriminalization is to reduce suffering and death,” she said.
Last month, Toronto said it was also preparing to ask Health Canada for an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to decriminalize the possession of illicit drugs for personal use in the city, following a similar request made by Vancouver in May.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2021.