Law & Justice

British Columbia decriminalizes drug possession

Sweeping move expected to reduce incarceration of province's large Indigenous population
March 24, 2023 at 2:30 p.m.

By Miles Morrisseau, ICT

The province of British Columbia on Canada’s Pacific Coast has taken the most radical step yet in North America’s unending and losing war on drugs.

Officials have surrendered. Now they are trying to bring the wounded back home to heal.

The province is decriminalizing possession of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA, known as Ecstacy, in amounts less than 2.5 grams, meaning a person possessing drugs for personal use will no longer face charges or confiscation.

In an area with one of Canada’s largest Indigenous populations, the move is expected to have a significant impact on Métis, First Nations and Inuit peoples who are already over-represented in the Canadian justice and prison systems. 

“Decriminalization will help to mitigate the stigma and shame attached to substance use and reduce the negative impacts of criminal charges, which is especially important to First Nations people,” said Dr. Nel Wieman, Anishinaabe from Little Grand Rapids First Nation, the acting chief medical officer of British Columbia’s First Nations Health Authority.

“The data clearly show that First Nations people continue to be disproportionately impacted by the ongoing toxic drug crisis in British Columbia,” Wieman said. “This is because First Nations people experience stereotyping, racism and discrimination in many different ways, including the health-care and judicial systems.”

On Jan. 31, the province received an exemption from federal laws, allowing officials to proceed with decriminalization.

The increasing toxicity of drugs was a factor in the radical decision. In recent years, toxic drugs such as fentanyl are finding their way into the illicit drug supply. 

“We know criminalization drives people to use alone. Given the increasingly toxic drug supply, using alone can be fatal,” said Jennifer Whiteside, British Columbia’s minister of mental health and addictions.

“Decriminalizing people who use drugs breaks down the fear and shame associated with substance use and ensures they feel safer reaching out for life-saving supports,” Whiteside said. “This is a vital step to get more people connected to the services and supports as the Province continues to add them at an unprecedented rate.”

Record number of deaths

The sprawling territory of British Columbia in western Canada is defined by its Pacific Ocean coastline and its rocky mountains, rainforests, rivers and lakes.

It’s 100,000 square miles bigger than Texas, with a population of 5.3 million people. It is also home to 155,020 First Nations people, 69,470 Métis, and 1,570 Inuit – or about 16 percent of Canada’s Indigenous people,  according to the 2011 census.

The First Nations people in the territory did not sign a treaty, and its lush terrain formed a northern Amazon that feeds a diversity of Indigeneity. It was recognized in 2007 as a hotspot for Indigenous languages by National Geographic.

“BC is unique in Canada for its Indigenous language diversity,” according to the First Peoples Council. “There are seven Indigenous language families and 34 languages in BC representing 60 percent of the First Nations languages in Canada.”

Since 2016, however, more than 32,000 people have died of an overdose in Canada, with British Columbia severely impacted by overdose deaths and related harms.

According to the British Columbia Coroners Service, 2,267 lives were lost to illicit drug toxicity in the province in 2021 — the highest recorded death toll in a calendar year. In the first nine months of 2022, 1,644 lives were lost to illicit drug toxicity.

The federal government is allowing the exemption from the drug laws for a three-year period.

“While approving this request is significant, it must be seen as one additional tool to be used in the ongoing comprehensive response to this crisis,” said Carolyn Bennett, federal minister of mental health and addictions.

“We remain committed to responding to this crisis with a whole-of-system approach to address the toxic drug supply and save lives.”

The decriminalization joins a nationwide repeal of mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses, Bennett said.

“[That] is helping to move more Canadians, including those from over-represented groups such as Indigenous people, Black Canadians and other racialized communities, away from the criminal justice system,” said Bennett.

‘Shifting our approach’

Guy Felicella is a peer clinical adviser for Vancouver Coastal Health’s Center on Substance Use and knows first hand how criminalization for possession of small amounts can lead to incarceration and dysfunction.

“Decriminalizing people who use drugs is essential to shifting our approach to substance use from one that is punitive to one that is focused on improving people’s well-being,” Felicella said.

“I spent years being targeted by police and served numerous jail sentences for possessing less than a half gram of cocaine. Removing charges for simple possession is one important component of ending the failed regime of criminalization.”

Drug possession in any amount will continue to be a criminal offense on K-12 school grounds and at licensed child care facilities. Further, decriminalization does not apply to youths 17 and younger. Youths found in possession of any amount of illegal drugs are subject to the federal Youth Criminal Justice Act, which offers them alternatives to criminal charges in some cases. 

The change will not impact those currently incarcerated on drug charges, but it allows officials to focus on treatment instead of future incarceration.

Whiteside, British Columbia’s minister of mental health and addictions, told ICT that the government will continue to work with Indigenous partners, including the British Columbia Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres, the BC First Nations Justice Council, the First Nations Health Authority, Métis Nation British Columbia, and First Nations leaders.

Whiteside officials want to ensure that decriminalization is implemented “in a culturally safe and appropriate way.”

Miles Morrisseau, a citizen of the Métis Nation, is a special correspondent for ICT based in the historic Métis Community of Grand Rapids, Manitoba, Canada. He reported as a national Native Affairs broadcaster for CBC Radio and is former editor-in-chief of Indian Country Today.

ICT, formerly Indian Country Today, is a nonprofit news organization that covers the Indigenous world with a daily digital platform and weekday broadcast with international viewership. 

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