Health Canada Approves Decriminalization of Small Amounts of Illicit Drugs for Personal Use in British Columbia

In November 2021, the Province of British Columbia made a request to Health Canada for a section 56 exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (Canada) (the “Exemption”) to permit individuals over the age of 18 to have personal amounts of illicit hard drugs such as heroin, fentanyl, methamphetamine, crack and cocaine without penalty.  Yesterday, on May 31st Carolyn Bennett, Federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions announced that Health Canada has granted the requested Exemption which will allow personal possession of small amounts of certain illegal drugs in the Province of British Columbia.  The time-limited Exemption is effective from January 31, 2023 until January 31, 2026 and applies to adults (18 years of age or older).  The Exemption covers only the following four types of illegal drugs for personal use: (i) opioids (including heroin, morphine and fentanyl); (ii) cocaine (including crack and powder cocaine); (iii) methamphetamine (meth); and (iv) MDMA (ecstasy, which is a form of psychedelic drug).

As a result of the Exemption, adults (18 years of age or older) will not be arrested or charged for the personal possession of any combination of these illegal drugs that adds up to a combined total of 2.5 grams.  In addition, the drugs will not be seized and instead, local law enforcement will provide information on local health and social services and make voluntary referrals to those services.  To be clear, although such activities will not have criminal consequences, the Exemption is not legalization of such illegal drugs.

This is the first exemption of its kind to be granted in Canada. Health Minister Bennett, said that  “eliminating criminal penalties for those carrying small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use will reduce stigma and harm and provide another tool for British Columbia to end the overdose crisis.” She further explained that the experiment in B.C. could serve as a template for other jurisdictions in Canada. Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer said that “by removing the fear and shame of drug use, we will be able to remove barriers that prevent people from accessing harm reduction services and treatment programs.”

In a similar effort, in January of 2022, the City of Toronto made a request to Health Canada for the Federal Government to develop a national framework to allow simple possession of all drugs for personal use, along with a Toronto-wide section 56 exemption. If granted, this would permit individuals in Toronto to possess small amounts of drugs for personal use. A decision remains to be released for this request, but in light of what has been approved in British Columbia it is reasonable to expect a similar outcome in Toronto.

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