What difference will 2.5 grams make? Canada responds to British Columbia’s overdose crisis by agreeing to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs
In the province of British Columbia, Canada, a public health crisis of rising numbers of unintentional drug toxicity deaths driven by an unpredictable unregulated drug supply resulted in B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer declaring a State of Emergency in April 2016. The city of Vancouver has the highest rate of drug toxicity deaths in the country.
On May 31, 2022, Canada’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions announced that the federal government would respond to requests by British Columbia and Vancouver by agreeing to decriminalize possession of small amounts (2.5g) of drugs in the province (but not elsewhere in the country) on a trial basis. The three-year trial will begin effective January 31, 2023, and will apply to people who use drugs 18 and over and include opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA. The allowable amount of illegal substances falls short of the 4.5g level requested by British Columbia, and was already deemed too low a threshold by some drug-user groups that have criticized the province for failing to adequately consult them. Portugal’s experience with decriminalization was frequently referred to in public discussions and during policy development.
The City of Vancouver and British Columbia’s provincial government were successful in convincing the federal government to grant the province an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Public health officials, organizations of people who use drugs, other advocacy groups, and the police were instrumental in shaping B.C.’s response to the overdose crisis. The key policy question, other than whether to decriminalize at all, has been the question of thresholds.