Possession of small amounts of fentanyl, heroin, cocaine and other hard drugs will be allowed in Canada’s westernmost province.
(Bloomberg) — Four years after legalizing recreational marijuana, Canada will again display its progressive drug policy bona fides on Jan. 31, when a law to decriminalize the personal possession of hard drugs in British Columbia takes effect.
The province will no longer criminally prosecute adults age 18 and over who are caught with less than 2.5 grams of hard drugs, including heroin, morphine, fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA (aka ecstasy). Instead, they will be offered information on social programs and treatment, if they request it. Drug trafficking will remain illegal, regardless of the amount possessed. The experiment will last three years.
“Given our understanding that substance use is a health issue, not a criminal issue,” said Jennifer Whiteside, British Columbia’s minister of mental health and addictions, “we need to take this further step to address the shame and stigma.” Whiteside, in a phone interview, said the new law will make people more comfortable reaching out for support.
Public health experts say the experiment faces long odds. Canada’s westernmost province has been ground zero for drug policy trials since 1959, when it opened the world’s first methadone clinic. Since then, it has tried several other so-called harm reduction programs, which espouse removing the criminal stigma from drug use to focus instead on users’ underlying social, economic and mental health issues.
Despite that, British Columbia remains plagued by rising levels of drug-related deaths and crimes. Overdose deaths last year were 41.7 per 100,000 people, or more than five-fold the rate in 1996, according to the province’s Coroner’s Service. For comparison, overdose deaths in the US were 28.3 per 100,000 in 2020. The province spends billions of dollars annually on services and facilities for drug users as it attempts to cope with its public health emergency.
British Columbia’s move follows similar actions by Portugal, the first country to decriminalize hard drugs in 2001, and the US state of Oregon, which did so in 2020. The change will be most visible in the region’s largest city, Vancouver, known for its world-class skiing, hiking and restaurants. Yet tourists are often shocked to see alleys close to some of the main shopping areas filled with heroin addicts.
The policy shift comes at a dicey time, both for the province and for drug policy writ large. Globally, the social burden of drug use is growing and governments are looking for solutions. According to the United Nations’ 2022 world drug report, 284 million people between the ages of 15 and 64 used illicit substances in 2020, a 26% increase over the prior decade.
The UN report says traffickers are moving into new territories and that a greater percentage of young people are consuming drugs – and in larger quantities. One of the effects of the pandemic, meanwhile, has been an alarming increase in drug use and mental health problems. Fentanyl’s rise as a stand-alone drug and a deadly contaminant has heightened the stakes.Weakening economic conditions and the rise in mental health issues globally have academics questioning whether the Canadian experiment will succeed. There are also many unknowns when it comes to drug policy effectiveness. Researchers say it’s not clear what works best to reduce drug overdoses and the crime and social problems that accompany drug use.
Even decades later, it’s impossible to say whether Portugal’s statistical victories, such as plummeting overdose deaths and HIV cases linked to dirty needles, were the result of other economic and social trends, said Jason Hockenberry, a department chair at Yale University’s School of Public Health. “Sometimes shame and stigma can motivate behavior change,” he said. While the world is moving toward removing penalties for drug use, there’s still an ongoing debate about whether decreasing the consequences of risk-taking incentivizes riskier behaviors, said Hockenberry.
Kevin Sabet, a drug policy adviser in the Bush, Clinton and Obama administrations and a Vancouver resident, said he’s never seen the situation in the city as bad as it is today. Sabet, president of the Foundation for Drug Policy Solutions, a nonprofit that aims to educate decision-makers and the public about drug use prevention and treatment, said Vancouver for years has had de-facto decriminalization, in which police turned a blind eye to drug users and focused instead on related crimes and dealers.
“I’m not arguing to stigmatize drug users and throw them in prison,” Sabet said, “but they need a more holistic health response, not this libertarian hands-off response.” He said he found it ironic that a country with such a strong social safety net didn’t have a more comprehensive policy that addresses related issues such as housing, employment and health care.
Alex Stevens, a criminal justice professor at the School of Social Policy at the University of Kent in the UK, said Portugal’s success in the early 2000s was largely due to the full package of social programs it implemented around that time. Incentives to hire people with drug problems, a guaranteed minimum income and housing assistance may have all played a role, he said.
British Columbia has invested C$1 billion ($751 million) since 2017 to expand existing facilities, such as adding dozens of overdose prevention sites, a spokesperson says. The region also spends C$2.8 billion on mental health and substance-use treatment and other services annually. “Decriminalization is one tool in a much bigger toolbox that we need to bring to bear on a terrible and devastating problem in an unprecedented toxic drug crisis,” said Whiteside, the mental health minister.
Some drug policy experts question whether Vancouver’s generous programs have made it a haven that attracts drug users from other places. Not only did Vancouver pioneer methadone clinics, it also opened North America’s first safe injection site in 2003 and has been distributing clean crack pipes since 2011. It even experimented with vending machines that identified users with biometrics and then dispensed set amounts.
But such models don’t always offer the personal engagement required to deal with people with substance use problems, said Mark Haden, an adjunct professor at University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health. The ideal response “is to make drugs available through health facilities.”
So far, there’s little evidence that the province’s leadership role in the harm reduction movement has worked. Its Center for Disease Control used modeling to claim that 7,542 deaths had been avoided between January 2015 and March 2022, due to such services as overdose prevention and supervised consumption. Yet illicit drug use has gone from being the third leading cause of unnatural death in 2011, after suicide and motor vehicle incidents, to the leading cause since 2015.
Trafficking, production or distribution-related crimes rose to 61.7 per 100,000 people in 2012, from 25.5 per 100,000 in 2017. The severity of crimes in Vancouver and two other provincial cities was also worse than the national average in 2021, according to Statistics Canada.