The request came from the province of British Columbia itself. Canada announced on Tuesday, May 31, the decriminalization of the possession of small quantities of so-called “hard” drugs in this western province.

British Columbia, whose largest city is Vancouver, is the first Canadian province to have this exception, which will concern heroin, cocaine, opiates and other hard drugs. The goal is to address addictions rather than imprison users for possession.

“We are doing this to save lives but also to give people who use drugs their dignity and their right to choose,” said Carolyn Bennett, minister of mental health and addictions, adding that this project could be applied in other provinces. According to the minister, “for too many years, the ideological opposition” to viewing drug possession as a health issue has “cost lives.”

“It’s not legalization”

Starting January 31, 2023 and for a period of three years, adults may carry up to 2.5 grams of drugs for personal use. They will receive information on accessing medical help for addictions. Until now, the most serious cases of possession of hard drugs have carried fines and jail time.

“I want to be very clear, this is not legalization. We did not take this decision lightly,” added Carolyn Bennett during a press briefing.

In 2021, the province recorded more than 2,200 opiate-related deaths, or six people per day. In total, from January 2016 to September 2021, Canada has recorded nearly 27,000 deaths and more than 29,000 hospitalizations for opioid-related overdoses, according to government figures. These figures showed a “worrying increase in overdoses and opioid-related deaths since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic”, according to this same source.

In the United States, Oregon did the same

At times such as during the first wave of the pandemic in May 2020, the number of overdose-related deaths in British Columbia exceeded the death toll from the coronavirus, which plunged the province into a double health crisis.

“Today is a momentous day,” responded Kennedy Stewart, Mayor of Vancouver, the city at the epicenter of the crisis. He called the agreement between the province and the Canadian government “a historic, courageous and revolutionary step” in this fight for public health.

His province is the second jurisdiction in North America to decriminalize the possession of hard drugs for personal use after Oregon, a very progressive American state in the northwest, in November 2020. Other Canadian metropolises such as Montreal and Toronto have also let it be known that they were considering applying for a legal exemption for possession of small amounts of hard drugs.