The decriminalization of certain types of drugs for personal use is both a cause of caution and optimism, says an expert, who generally praises it.
Bernie Pauly, a professor in the University of Victoria School of Nursing and a scientist with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, offered that assessment on the eve of what many have called a historic decision.
Beginning Jan. 31, police stopped arresting, charging or seizing the drugs of adult British Columbians in possession of up to 2.5 grams of certain illegal drugs for personal use.
“The optimism is that people will be more likely to access harm reduction services including drug checking,” said Pauly. “Being offered health care referrals rather than being coerced is a positive. Coercion to treatment does not work. The concerns are that youth under 18 are excluded and that they will continue to experience major impacts of criminalization affecting future educations, housing and employment opportunities as well as access to services.”
B.C. leaders had asked and received the exemption from the federal government in May 2022. Some 10,000 people have fatally overdosed since the province declared a public health emergency in 2016. Officials believe that this departure from criminalizing drug use will get more people into treatment and diminish the stigma around it.
The federal exemption will last three years and covers illicit versions of opioids such as heroin, morphine and fentanyl, as well as crack and powder cocaine, methamphetamine; and MDMA (ecstasy).
Pauly said decriminalization can improve access to harm reduction and other services.
“This means people will be less likely to use alone and ideally more likely to access services like supervised consumption sites, overdose prevention sites and drug checking,” said Pauly.
Decriminalization is not legalization and the drug market remains unregulated and substances are of unknown quality and composition, she added.
“As part of addressing overdose deaths, we need to scale up a safer supply of substances that is accessible and appropriate to address the scope of this public health issue that is killing six people per day in BC.”
Decriminalization’s roll-out happened against the backdrop of questions around B.C.’s level of preparation.
Federal and provincial officials said during a technical briefing that they have been working with a range of partners for what lies ahead, but voices representing the political opposition have lamented a lack of preparation.
Pauly also has questions.
“The province has identified training for police but to what extent and how decriminalization will actually roll out remains to be seen,” she said.
Also looming is the question of how provincial and federal officials plan to judge decriminalization.
Aside from a promise of allowing British Columbians to track the trial through a public dashboard updated every three months, it is not entirely clear yet how the province will determine the success of decriminalization, especially when it comes to measuring things like stigma around drug use.
“An obvious metric is whether or not there is a reduction in arrests and drug related charges for personal possession,” said Pauly. “Some other questions are, ‘who is benefiting and who is not from this shift?’ Is the 2.5 g threshold high enough? The three-year period is a doable time frame for evaluation with recommendations for improving this policy change.”