British Columbia Decriminalizes Hard Drugs In Experiment To End Overdose

Yesterday, British Columbia started a drug decriminalization program which permits the possession of up to 2.5 grams of hard drugs, including opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA, with the aim to avoid punishing drug users by instead supporting them with appropriate health resources. First announced in May 2022, the federal government granted the province with an exemption from the 1996 Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which provides punishments for possession of these drugs, in order to test this program for three years. British Columbia has noted frequent drug overdoses in the province since it declared their use a public health emergency in 2016, with over 10,000 residents dying of drug-related causes.

“Decriminalizing people who use drugs breaks down the fear and shame associated with substance abuse and ensures they feel safer reaching out for life-saving supports,” said Jennifer Whiteside, British Columbian Minister for Mental Health and Addictions.

“This is something that people have understood for a really long time,” agreed Daniel Werb, director of the Center on Drug Policy Evaluation at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. “[Y]ou can’t arrest your way out of this problem.”

Critics, such as Tristin Hopper of the National Post, claim that the program will fail to reduce the number of overdose deaths because Vancouver has barely enforced minor drug crimes for the last 10 years. The program lacks enforcement resources to effectively target drug dealers, Hopper says, citing the low number of additional addiction treatment beds (British Columbia added 195 in the past year). But while overdose deaths will not decrease without proper police training and healthcare infrastructure, British Columbia has taken these steps. The province has provided training resources and practical guidance to more than 9,000 front-line police officers and invested $430 million over the next three years to combat the toxic drug crisis.

Hopper’s criticisms also ignore the debilitating effects prison has on drug users. According to a study published in medical journal CMAJ Open, someone in custody in Ontario – even if they were not arrested for a drug-related crime – was more than 50 times more likely to overdose within the two weeks after they left prison than the general population. Even without increasing the enforcement mechanisms against drug dealers, fewer people caught up in the justice system means fewer demands for hard drugs.

“[Incarcerated] people are bored and miserable and isolated, often self-medicating for mental and physical health needs,” Leo Beletsky, a law professor at Northeastern University, explained to N.P.R. “Is it surprising that there’s such a demand for drugs in detention settings? Absolutely not.” Reducing incarceration means reducing exposure to the conditions of incarceration, including trauma and abuse, which encourage drug use. Therefore, decriminalizing drug use will lead to fewer deaths by overdose.

Decriminalization additionally provides police with fewer opportunities to accuse people of criminal activity. As Marcus W. Brown outlines in a Reason Foundation report titled “Decriminalization as Police Reform,” the ability to enforce drug crimes gives police the cover to interrogate and harass people during minor encounters, with innocent people facing jail time as a potential consequence. “There is no clear protection against police pulling someone over deemed suspicious using a pretext, establishing probable cause by smelling cannabis or claiming to smell it, and then conduct[ing] a warrantless search of the vehicle via a search incident-to-arrest,” said Brown.

Pursuing the decriminalization of drug use takes it out of the hands of law enforcement and into the hands of medical professionals, who are more capable of dealing with the issue in a way that supports patients. British Columbia’s enactment of this policy will prove this to the rest of Canada, hopefully encouraging more provinces and states to enact similar approaches to dealing with drug use.