When I moved to Vancouver I was curious about harm reduction and drug policy. At the time I had a more stigmatized perspective and did not understand the harm caused by the toxic drug supply or drug policy that criminalizes people who use certain kinds of drugs. My interest led me to get involved in harm reduction and drug policy advocacy including in substance use health education at the UBC Wellness Centre. Since then, I have learned a lot.
I’ve learned that people use drugs for a variety of reasons: sleep, pain management, curiosity, trauma relief, to get high, connect with others, and more. I’ve also learned that drug policy advocacy is constantly changing depending on community needs and context, like what is currently happening with drug decriminalization in BC.
What decriminalization will look like
Under current drug policy, people can be arrested, have their substance(s) confiscated, or face further criminal punishment for possession of illegal substances. But as of January 31, 2023, British Columbia is implementing a form of decriminalization as a 3-year pilot until January 31, 2026. Adults (18 years and older) in BC will not be arrested or charged for possessing small amounts of certain illegal drugs for personal use. The total amount of illegal drug(s) must be equal to or less than 2.5 grams.
The illegal drugs covered by the exemption are:
- Opioids (including heroin, morphine, and fentanyl)
- Cocaine (including crack and powder cocaine)
- Methamphetamine (meth)
- MDMA (ecstasy)
This change is not legalization, meaning there will not be a government regulated supply of these substances widely available, or public shops like legalized cannabis (aka. marijuana, weed, pot). The trafficking or dealing of these substances remains illegal.
Why the province is decriminalizing these drugs
Criminalization is harmful in part because it contributes to stigma toward people who use substances. Decriminalization is a form of harm reduction that aims to reduce stigma and fear of legal and other consequences. This could result in increased accessibility to services like drug testing, safer consumption sites, and other health services for those who use drugs for personal use. The Canadian government states that the ultimate goal of decriminalization is to save lives.
This form of decriminalization is not perfect or without critique. But the change signals that people are paying attention and want to reduce the harm that could be experienced by people who use drugs. I’m still relatively new to this work, but I’m inspired by the advocacy for decriminalization that is rooted in reducing harm, and acknowledging that people who use substances deserve dignity, safer access and, above all, life.
To learn more about harm reduction, substance use, and the toxic drug supply, check out this Canvas course. For a list of harm reduction resources available on the UBC Vancouver campus and in surrounding communities, check out the AMS harm reduction resources page.