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Canadian province decriminalizes hard drugs

February 5, 2023

The Canadian province of British Columbia has launched a pilot project to help decrease the number of overdoses and reduce stigma surrounding drug use.

A small plastic bag filled with a white powder, next to a pile of the same powder, next to a needle, on a black surface
Many people have reservations about complete legalizationImage: Esben Hansen/PantherMedia/IMAGO

Drug policy remains a hotly debated topic among experts and politicians. What should a state's policy toward soft and drugs be and how can it reach certain goals? While many countries rely on prohibition and punitive measures, others have begun taking a more liberal approach.

Canada legalized the sale and consumption of cannabis in 2018, with the aim of decreasing demand on the black market and decreasing drug-related crime.

Now, the country's western province of British Columbia has launched an ambitious pilot project that will run for at least three years: Since January 31, people found in possession of up to 2.5 grams of hard drugs will no longer be committing an offense. Adults carrying a combined total of fewer than 2.5 grams of cocaine (in powder or "crack" form), methamphetamine, MDMA, heroin, morphine, fentanyl will not be arrested or prosecuted. Nor will the substances be confiscated.

Carolyn Bennett, Canada's mental health and addictions minister, said she had "thoroughly reviewed and carefully considered both the public health and public safety impacts of this request."

"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 said.

Members of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users
Members of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users have been informed of their rights under the new pilot projectImage: JENNIFER GAUTHIER/REUTERS

The government hopes decriminalization will reduce the number of drug-related deaths. The idea is that the move will lessen the stigma attached to drug use, and encourage people to seek the help they need. 

No easy solution in sight for opioid epidemic

The United States also has a big problem with drug addiction and drug-related deaths. Jonathan Caulkins, a professor and drug policy expert at Carnegie Melon University in Pittsburgh, said that the "root causes are twofold."

"The first was very liberal, prescribing prescription opioids, which led distressingly large numbers of people to develop opioid use disorder. In the United States to the order of 5 million people, and in Canada proportionately roughly the same."

The addictive nature of legal opioids was concealed and downplayed by pharmaceutical companies for years. Many patients who used them eventually transitioned to illegal drugs such as heroin or even fentanyl, which is even more potent. Since then, the number of people who have died from overdoses in Canada has probably increased significantly.

But what's the best approach to this epidemic? Caulkins said it's striking that though the US and Canada have applied different policies, the outcomes are devastatingly similar. "The horrible truth, though, is that even if we do everything right, it doesn't make the problem go away," he said. 

That's why the Canadian government has stated for years that it's "committed to a comprehensive public health approach to the overdose crisis that is focused on reducing harms, saving lives and getting people the supports they desire and need." This includes access to drug tests and the opportunity for those struggling with addiction to use substances while being monitored by a medical professional.

Other countries, including Portugal, have also experimented with decriminalizing small amounts of drugs. So far, Oregon is the only US state to do so. But according to Caulkin, the results of these measures have been modest at best.

Canada has also experimented with other approaches. In adherence with the country's "safer supply" policy, the government provides drug users with medication to discourage them from relying on the black market. That prevents them from consuming dangerous substances or taking doses that are too high. 

A woman has her arms crossed around a picture of her and her daughter
Crystal Daignault, of Surrey, BC, holds a photograph of herself with her late daughter Claudia, who died from fentanyl poisoning Image: Darryl Dyck/Zuma/IMAGO

'War on drugs' has failed

The fact remains that the "war on drugs," which involves prohibition and draconian punishments, has been a spectacular failure. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, an independent commission comprised of politicians, businesspeople and human rights experts, issued a report on the matter in 2011. It stated: "Policymakers believed that harsh law enforcement action against those involved in drug production, distribution and use would lead to an ever-diminishing market in controlled drugs such as heroin, cocaine and cannabis, and the eventual achievement of a 'drug free world.' In practice, the global scale of illegal drug markets — largely controlled by organized crime — has grown dramatically over this period."

But many also have reservations about complete legalization. The opioid crisis was largely triggered by widespread and easy access to substance. And alcohol and nicotine, which in many countries are the only legal drugs, are also responsible for addiction issues that are at least partially related to the fact that they're readily available.

A man sitting down, wearing a black cap injects a needle into his arm
Drug users in Vancouver can take advantage of supervised drug injection sitesImage: Liang Sen ly/Xinhua/IMAGO

What remains, experts believe, is something of a compromise between complete legalization and complete prohibition — the decriminalization of certain amounts of particular drugs, as part of a safer supply strategy for instance, can at least help to limit damage.

Most observers agree on one thing: There's never been a world without drugs, and in all likelihood there won't be one in the future either. Canada's efforts will probably have little impact on how illegal drugs are produced and traded. 

Caulkins doubts drug use will be reduced, considering that it is actually being made easier. However, he's optimistic that progressive measures will help to lessen drug-related damage to society and public health.

This article was translated from German.