British Columbia Begins Three-Year Drug Decriminalization Pilot
For several years, British Columbia has been an epicenter of the opioid crisis sweeping North America. Now, the provincial government is adopting a radical – and controversial – new approach to solve this crisis. In effect, it’s making the drugs legal.
Under a law passed last summer, British Columbia has been given a three-year exemption from Federal drug legislation. Beginning tomorrow, all legal penalties have been eliminated for adults who possess small amounts of four key narcotics: cocaine, methamphetamines, MDMA, and opioids like heroin and fentanyl. Police will no longer confiscate drugs from users, instead providing them with information about treatment services. Sales of these drugs will remain illegal, as will possession of large quantities
This dramatic shift in policy comes as BC struggles with some of the highest rates of opioid-related deaths in Canada. The province has nearly as many drug-related deaths as Ontario, despite having only one-third the population; 1,600 people died in the first nine months of 2022 alone. The provincial government has struggled unsuccessfully to halt the rapid rise of drug use, and accompanying increase in overdoses and deaths.
Proponents of the experiment say that past enforcement tactics haven’t worked. Government data show a nearly 200% increase in emergency overdose calls between 2012 and 2022, including a 75% increase since a provincial emergency was declared in 2016. Much of this can be attributed to the rising use of fentanyl, which has all but replaced heroin for many users and is exponentially more dangerous.
The new policy is being pitched as a radical rethinking of past deterrence-based approaches. Founded on “harm reduction” principles, it aims to limit the damage done by problematic drug use rather than attempting to force users to quit. Primarily, it seeks to reframe drug use as a personal health issue, rather than a criminal one. Proponents argue that eliminating the secrecy and stigma around drug use will save lives, prevent overdoses, and make users more likely to seek treatment for addiction.
Supporters point to Portugal as a successful model implementation of these principles. Since decriminalizing drug use in 2000, the country has seen a significant decrease in deaths and HIV transmission, while nevertheless maintaining low drug consumption rates by European standards. The harm reduction model has also been implemented in some parts of the US, most notably the state of Oregon, where voters passed a decriminalization measure similar to BC’s in 2020.
Nevertheless, the new law is not without controversy, even among supporters of decriminalization. A major point of concern remains a lack of effective treatment for users. BC’s government has poured millions into mental health and addiction treatment services. However, unlike Portugal and Oregon, which use citations, fines, and other administrative penalties to try and channel drug users into treatment, BC’s law does not include a similar mechanism. And even with these incentives, getting users into treatment remains difficult. A recent government audit in Oregon gave poor marks to its decriminalization regime. It found that only 1% of those cited for drug use sought treatment for addiction, while overdose rates and deaths soared (an increase that supporters blame on the Pandemic). Without treatment incentives, opponents say the change in policy is unlikely to have a significant public health effect.
Still, supporters say it’s too early to judge the effectiveness of the policy, and urge patience until the trial concludes in 2026. The experiment is being closely watched by other parts of Canada as a model for future policy changes. Canada has long been known for a progressive drug policy; it was one of the first countries to legalize medical marijuana, and remains one of only seven countries globally with legal recreational cannabis. It remains to be seen whether this new initiative will mark the vanguard of a new revolution in substance use treatment.
Image: Homeless man and police in Vancouver. Source: