Canada’s Experiment Decriminalizing Possession of Small Amounts of Cocaine and Heroin

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    The Canadian province of British Columbia has launched an unprecedented pilot program in that country that decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin. As of Tuesday, adults can possess up to 2.5 grams of those drugs, as well as methamphetamine, fentanyl and morphine.

    The Canadian federal government granted the West Coast province’s request to conduct the 3-year experiment. The pilot in British Columbia follows another program in the US state of Oregon, which decriminalized hard drugs in 2020.

    Before the launch of the Canadian experiment, British Columbia and federal officials laid out its scope in an approved waiver to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. While hard drugs will remain illegal, adults found in possession of a combined total of less than 2.5g will not be arrested or charged and the substances in their possession will not be seized. Instead, they will be offered information about available health and social services.

    Federal Minister for Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett called the move “a monumental change in drug policy that favors the fostering of trusting and supportive relationships in health and social services rather than further criminalization”.

    Public health emergency

    Nearly 10,000 people have died from drug overdoses in British Columbia since the province declared a public health emergency in 2016, according to official sources. Vancouver’s unusual approach offers opioid users injection sites, antidotes and even prescription heroin. “Decriminalizing people who use drugs removes the fear and shame associated with substance use and makes them feel more confident seeking help to save their lives”, said Jennifer Whiteside, British Columbia’s minister of mental health and addictions.

    Nearly 10,000 people have died of drug overdoses in British Columbia since 2016. Authorities have provided training on the rule change to thousands of police officers, including those in Vancouver, the province’s largest city.

    The program will be in effect from January 31st, 2023 to January 31st, 2026, unless revoked by the federal government. Some experts have questioned the 2.5-gram limit, saying it’s not enough to cover the habits of many addicts.

    The new regime has several exceptions

    The sale of drugs is still illegal. It is also illegal to possess drugs on school grounds, day care centers, and airports. Canada legalized adult recreational cannabis use nationwide in 2018. But the drugs now allowed in small amounts remain prohibited, meaning there are no plans to sell them in stores, unlike marijuana; it means that trafficking those substances across borders still remains illegal.
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