The Decriminalization of Drugs in British Columbia: A Step in the Right Direction for People with Drug Addictions?
In British Columbia, since January 31st, 2023, it is no longer a criminal offence for adults to possess up to 2,5 grams of cocaine, methamphetamine and opioids. This change in legislation was made possible via an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act granted by Health Canada. Drug decriminalization has been described as a critical step in British Columbia’s efforts to combat the harms associated with the misuse of several psychoactive substances, including opioids1,2. The three-year pilot project developed by the province is part of a movement to reduce the harms associated with drug use, including overdose deaths and the criminalization of people with substance use disorders3 . This would move drug use and possession from being a criminal offence to being treated as a public health issue.
For many people living with substance use disorder, decriminalization represents a significant shift in the way their situation is perceived and treated. Rather than being punished for their drug use, they would be able to access health and social services without fear of criminal charges. It would also have the potential to reduce the risk of overdose deaths by removing the fear of criminal charges for people showing early signs of overdose or for people being eyewitnesses to an overdose4. People who use substances conveying a high-potential of misuse and overdose could access more easily life-saving interventions such as naloxone, seek treatment, support, and harm reduction services without fear of stigma or legal repercussions.
Nevertheless, the decriminalization of drugs in British Columbia, far from being a panacea for all drug-related problems in society, represents a significant step forward in addressing the harms associated with the criminalization of drug use, and is overall a positive development for people with substance use disorder5.
1. CCSA (Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction). Decriminalization of Controlled Substances: Policy Brief 2018. [Internet]. 2018 [cited 2023 Feb 23]
2. Government of British Columbia. Decriminalization [Internet]. Government of British Columbia; [updated 2022 Nov 7; cited 2023 Feb 23].
3. CBC News. What you need to know about drugs in British Columbia [Internet]. CBC News; 2021 Oct 21 [cited 2023 Feb 23].
4. CBC News. ‘Toxic drug supply’: Why some experts say decriminalization is a key step to fighting the overdose crisis [Internet]. [place unknown]: CBC News; 2022 Feb 23 [cited 2023 Feb 23].
Drug Policy Alliance. Approaches to Decriminalization [Internet]. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime; 2015 Feb [cited 2023 Feb 23].