BC's NDP government believes its decriminalization of hard drugs helps end the "shame" and "stigma" for people accessing help with substance abuse.
Health Canada granted the province a subsection 56(1) exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to decriminalize people who use drugs.
The province's three-year program began Tuesday and permitted residents over 18 to have a combined total of 2.5 grams of heroin, crack, cocaine, fentanyl, MDMA, and meth on hand.
"We know criminalization drives people to use alone ... [which] can be fatal," said Jennifer Whiteside, B.C.'s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions.
"Decriminalizing people who use drugs breaks down the fear and shame associated with substance use and ensures they feel safer reaching out for life-saving supports. This is a vital step to get more people connected to the services and supports as the province continues to add them at an unprecedented rate."
Despite the exemption, this doesn't mean hard drugs are legal, as the exempt drugs remain illegal above 2.5 grams, noted the province.
"Adults […] are not subject to criminal charges, and the drugs are not seized," read a government release. "Instead, they are offered information about health and social supports."
Together, the federal and provincial governments will be working closely to evaluate and monitor the exemption to ensure the desired outcomes of decriminalization are met, and there are no unintended consequences.
"Every day, we lose lives to overdoses from the increasingly toxic illegal drug supply. We are committed to stopping this tragic epidemic with bold action and significant policy change," said Carolyn Bennett, federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health.
"By supporting British Columbia in this exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, our government is providing the province with the ability to help divert people away from the criminal justice system and toward the health and social services they need."
The province has worked with police leaders to develop training resources and practical guidance, which are now available to more than 9,000 front-line police officers.
In addition, the province is building new pathways into the healthcare system by hiring health authority-specific positions dedicated to building connections with local service providers and people referred by police. These positions will also help connect people with resources and information on their community's voluntary mental health and addiction support.
"We look forward to continuous collaboration with the Province to measure the public health and public safety outcomes, help save lives and bring an end to this crisis,” added Bennett.
The opioid crisis has devastated the province, especially during the COVID pandemic.
According to government statistics, more people died from drug overdoses than from homicide, car accidents, suicide or the coronavirus combined.
In July 2020, overdose deaths reached 175, marking five consecutive months of a worrying increase in such incidents.
In comparison, BC has seen 203 confirmed deaths from the coronavirus since the pandemic began, while the province observed 21 deaths from the virus in July.
Tuesday's exemption is among many tools the province uses to combat its toxic drug crisis.
BC's NDP government has been urgently working to build a comprehensive and seamless mental health and addictions care system that works for all residents, including hundreds of new treatment beds and increasing access to harm-reduction programs, such as supervised consumption sites, and a safer supply and naloxone.