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For decriminalization to save lives, users need to be allowed to carry more drugs: B.C. advocates

Health Canada nearly halved requested personal possession amount in approval May 31
A man pauses at a coffin after carrying it during a memorial march to remember victims of overdose deaths in Vancouver on August 15, 2020. Advocates say Health Canada’s announcement to decriminalize personal possession of 2.5 grams will do little to save people’s lives. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Drug decriminalization advocates say any step forward should be celebrated, but that Health Canada’s decision to approve a personal drug possession threshold far lower than what B.C. requested won’t help the vast majority of people using drugs.

Health Canada announced its approval of B.C.’s exemption request Tuesday (May 31) in a first for the country, but altered the allowable amount of drugs from the 4.5-cumulative grams sought, to 2.5 cumulative grams instead.

READ ALSO: B.C. approved to decriminalize possession of small amounts of street drugs as deaths soar

Approved amount only good for ‘weekend warriors’

“It leaves the majority of us behind,” says Garth Mullins, who represented the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) on B.C.’s core planning table for decriminalization.

He says 2.5 grams may have been realistic several decades ago when there was still a clean supply of drugs, but that things are different now. The effects of fentanyl, for example, don’t last as long as straight heroin, Mullins says. This forces people to use drugs more frequently throughout the day.

The introduction of fentanyl has also meant people have developed higher tolerances, Mullins adds. And, he says, more people are polydrug users now, making the cumulative threshold unrealistically low.

While working on B.C.’s exemption request, VANDU conducted a survey of people using drugs on the Downtown Eastside and found a personal possession amount of 4.5 grams of each substance would be suitable for most people.

A cumulative amount of 2.5 grams seems laughable, Mullins says. He says the only people that will benefit are “weekend warriors” and recreational users. For those with any kind of tolerance, who live in rural or remote areas and have to buy in large amounts, or who have a disability and can’t get to a supplier very often, Health Canada’s announcement will do nothing to decriminalize their needs, Mullins says.

READ ALSO: ‘A pit in our stomach’: B.C. moms say threshold of decriminalized drug possession too little

Rural, remote and Indigenous communities not considered

The BC First Nations Justice Council agrees the lower threshold excludes people in rural and remote settings, many of whom are Indigenous. In a Tuesday news release, it calls for a 4-gram threshold as well as pardons and criminal record expungement for people who have previously been charged for possessing drugs for personal use.

“…too many of our people have become entangled in the criminal justice system because of addictions,” the justice council says.

Pivot Legal Society lawyer Caitlin Shane says the lower approved threshold means people will continue to be entangled. She says everything she has heard from drug user groups suggests that most people are carrying more than 2.5 grams on them at a time. In fact, it is most common for people to purchase drugs in 3.5-gram quantities to begin with, she and other advocates say.

For that reason, Shane says they aren’t even really considering the announcement as decriminalization.

Police, RCMP originally pushed for lower

She says she’s actually concerned that the set personal possession threshold will give police easier grounds to stop people and recommend charges.

“Now that we have this clear line in the sand (…), we’re concerned we’ll see a scaling up of law enforcement,” she says.

Her and Mullins say police and RCMP were the loudest proponents against the original 4.5-gram ask.

“I think that especially at this time where there’s kind of this national and international reckoning with the violence of police and the history of police that’s ongoing, they feel threatened and are holding on to this power,” Shane says.

Ghalib Bhayani, the chief superintendent of the RCMP’s Lower Mainland District, confirmed to Black Press Media that the BC Association of Chiefs of Police originally suggested a 1-gram threshold, but that they are now supporting the 2.5 grams.

Bhayani says this is based off 2020 data of the number of grams seized off people in various districts of B.C., which he says average out to below 2 grams.

He says police are trained to use discretion when encountering people with drugs to determine whether they are a threat and need to be charged or not. Health Canada says police and RCMP will undergo new training ahead of the decriminalization start date on Jan. 31, 2023. They will be instructed to direct people to resources and supports if they are found with an allowable personal supply.

READ ALSO: Liberals pressed on whether B.C. drug decriminalization could pave way nationally

Carolyn Bennett, federal minister of mental health and addictions, says they are using the 2.5 grams as a three-year pilot test to see if similar measures could be implemented in the rest of the country. Advocates like Mullins and Shane say the lower threshold almost guarantees the measure won’t be a huge success though, and that it will give critics an easy path to claim decriminalization doesn’t work.

For Mullins, who has been pushing for decriminalization since the 1990s, the lower threshold means they have to keep driving forward.

“It’s a long fight and it’s not over yet. We’re gonna keep burying our members and fighting for the end of the drug war,” he says.

Close to 10,000 people have died of toxic drug poisoning since B.C. declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency in April 2016. The BC Coroner Service says an average of five to seven people are dying every day.

READ ALSO: ‘Death penalty situation’: 6 years ago, B.C. declared toxic drug poisonings a health emergency


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About the Author: Jane Skrypnek

Hi, I'm a provincial reporter with Black Press Media, where I've worked since 2020.
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