Decriminalizing all drugs has remained a contentious topic, first seen in Portugal in 2001. This newfound approach views drug consumption as a public health issue, rather than a personal moral failing, and emphasizes rehabilitation over jail time. This notion has spread to British Columbia; as of January 31st, it is no longer a criminal offence for those eighteen and over to possess up to 2.5 grams of any illicit drug, including cocaine, methamphetamines, MDMA, and fentanyl. 

This policy comes as a response to the rampant drug abuse problem in British Columbia, with nearly 6 people in the province dying from drug overdoses each day in 2022. Drug abuse and overdose has been declared a public health emergency since 2016, with over eleven thousand deaths attributed to drug overdoses since then. 

The Details:

British Columbia received a three-year exemption from the article 56(1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which will expire on January 31st, 2026. During these three years, data will be collected on drug fatalities and public safety in order to determine the efficacy of this law in British Columbia. Trafficking drugs remains illegal, and bylaws prevent people from carrying these drugs in public spaces, such as malls, cafes, and spaces owned by the city. If a person is found possessing  the legal amount of previously illegal drugs, they will not be arrested, but instead given information on rehabilitation programs. 

Benefits of Decriminalizing:

This measure comes after years of research advertising the benefits of decriminalizing drugs, and recent studies showing that there is a correlation between countries with strict drug laws and high drug death rates. While criminalizing drugs is still the most common method used to tackle drug trafficking and abuse, its efficacy is debatable. Since 1986, safe injection sites, or sites where drug users are able to safely inject or consume drugs, have been operating in Europe since 1986 – during this time, there has been a decrease in drug-related litter, unsafe injections, and injections in public. Informal studies have concluded that the legal distribution of drugs can help monitor their presence within a population, allow for more interventions, and ultimately ensure that fewer drugs contaminated with other substances are distributed. 

Toronto – Submitting a Request, Denied Still:

However, despite these successful results, and the recent law passed in British Columbia, Toronto’s request to the Federal Government to decriminalize drugs has been pending for over a year. Toronto’s plan is similar to British Columbia’s, with police officers able to provide information and resources on rehabilitation instead of arresting those in possession of illicit drugs. While part of the reason for the delay is attributed to the logistics of crafting a drug policy plan tailored specifically for the unique drug scene in Toronto, Daniel Werb, director of the Toronto-Based Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation argues that this delay is simply “political cowardice”

What is Preventing this Bill from Going Through?

Exemptions from the Federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act are examined on a case-by-case basis, with decriminalization seen to be an extreme resort in combatting high death rates and contaminated drug supplies. Many concerns about decriminalization have been raised, primarily the potential for drugs to grow more potent, with easier access and potentially cheaper black market prices. As well, decriminalization for adults only can be difficult to fully enforce, another consequence of more widely accessible illicit substances. 

While these possible consequences likely play a factor in why decriminalization in Canada is a slow process, it’s important to consider how recent the movement towards decriminalization is. As of 2020, just 16 countries had some form of decriminalization, with 67 still classifying personal drug possession as a criminal offence. 

Countries In Which Drug Use Or Possession For Personal Use Is An Offence

This means that research on the efficacy is either country-specific or largely anecdotal – for Toronto, a plan to wait for British Columbia to release reports on the success of their own three-year trial means waiting years, as the data necessary cannot be obtained quickly.

 However, despite these concerns raised, it is abundantly clear that the current overdose prevention strategy in Toronto is largely ineffective. Data available shows a jump from 296 recorded opioid deaths in 2020, to 591 in 2021. Released data from 2022 shows 350 recorded drug deaths within the first three quarters of the year,  with another 21 probable deaths. Decriminalization would not drop this death rate to zero, or completely curb the illegal drug trade, but it could potentially reduce the number of laced drugs sold, and allow for those struggling to ask for help without fear of prosecution. It would be a starting point in examining drug addiction as a multifaceted issue, hopefully leading to more funding dedicated to treatment programs and recovery centers, which struggle with long wait times. 

What Happens Now?

Once data from British Columbia is released, it is likely that more provinces will join them in reevaluating how addiction is dealt with. Toronto is the first pending request, but it will not be the last — it is becoming clear that simply criminalizing drug possession is not enough, and a new approach must be taken. 

Edited by Louisa Hanson

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Featured image by U.S. Customs and Border Protection obtained via Flickr.