Jenna Moon
Jenna Moon
Updated Jan 31, 2023, 10:40am EST
North America

Canada begins drug decriminalization experiment in British Columbia


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The News

The Canadian province of British Columbia started a three-year drug decriminalization trial on Tuesday, becoming the first region in the country to change the way it polices people who use hard drugs.

From Tuesday adults in B.C. will not be subject to criminal charges for possessing up to 2.5 grams of cocaine, opioids, methamphetamine, and MDMA. People stopped by police while carrying an allowable amount of drugs will not have the substance confiscated from them.

Selling and trafficking drugs will remain illegal, as will possession of drugs by minors, and the possession of drugs on school premises.

An aerial photograph of downtown Vancouver.
Adobe Stock/
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Know More

Last year, the Canadian government granted British Columbia an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA), due in part to the high impact of the opioid crisis on the province.

In 2021, British Columbia recorded more than 2,200 overdose-related deaths, a 26% jump from 2020. And in the first nine months of last year, more than 1,600 people had been killed by illicit substances.


The decriminalization plan has faced some criticism that the 2.5 gram limit does not go far enough to actually decriminalize drug use, and the province initially sought a legal limit of 4.5 grams.

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Step Back

British Columbia will be the first region in Canada to decriminalize hard drugs, and other jurisdictions, such as Toronto, are eagerly watching for the results.

In 2018, Canada’s federal government legalized cannabis, making the country the first in the industrialized world to regulate access of the drug for non-medical reasons.

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“Given our understanding that substance use is a health issue, not a criminal issue … we need to take this further step to address the shame and stigma” that prevents people from reaching out for support, Jennifer Whiteside, British Columbia’s minister of mental health and addictions, told Bloomberg.

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The View From Portugal

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs following a 20-year heroin crisis in the country. The result of the government’s action has been a resounding success: problematic drug use dropped, HIV rates plummeted, and overdose deaths fell after the decriminalization plan was implemented.

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  • In his newsletter Bug-eyed and Shameless, Canadian journalist Justin Ling describes the movement to decriminalize drugs in British Columbia, brought about in part to the opioid crisis’ outsized impact on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. He sits down with two campaigners responsible for the province’s decriminalization push.