Approved exemption proves we still need decriminalization for all


It was big news on May 31st when federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett, and her provincial counterpart Minister Sheila Malcolmson, announced that BC’s application for an exemption to Section s. 56 (1) of Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act had been approved by Health Canada. The exemption will take effect on January 31, 2023 for a three-year period with full review of its impact being carried on throughout. The exemption allows people in BC who are 19 years or older to have up to 2.5 cumulative grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, or MDMA in their possession for personal use. If within that threshold, they will not have their substances taken away, nor will they be arrested, charged or fined. The real-time data gathering and analysis that will be ongoing during the exemption could lead to evidence-based adjustments.

During the press conference, BC’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Shelia Malcolmson envisioned an ideal world in which stigma is vastly reduced, and people will have access to treatment, resources, and a safe supply through better coordination of the health care system.

BC’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who wrote the 2019 report Stopping the Harm in which she called for de facto decriminalization, praised community voices of people with lived and living experience (PWLLE) and Moms Stop the Harm for their work on harm reduction and saving lives. As a long time proponent of decriminalization, Henry stated that while this exemption isn’t perfect, she is happy to see change.


Advocates Respond

Too Little

A key concern of advocates is that the 2.5 gram limit is too low. BC’s application asked for an allowance of 4.5 cumulative grams – and on March 1 we wrote to federal Minister Bennett and made clear our position that the threshold amount being requested by the province was the absolute minimum that should be considered.

With a cumulative exemption of only 2.5 grams, the threat of criminalization and stigma remains for many people who use drugs and those most at risk of overdose. This includes people who are heavy users, who use multiple substances, and/or those who live outside of urban centres who routinely possess more than this.

During the press conference, Minister Bennett defended the government’s decision and the approved threshold amount, saying that the 85% of confiscated amounts by police are under 2 grams. This deferral to the police in decision making, as well as singling out the work of several police representatives, was noted as concerning by several PWLLE.

Bottom line: The approved 2.5 gram threshold is much lower than what has been routinely called for by people who use drugs and other advocates. Once again, the expertise and recommendations of people who use drugs has been ignored.


Too late

The exemption doesn’t go into effect until January 31, 2023. The obvious question of many was why wait? During the press conference, Minister Malcolmson said that the time was required for training of law enforcement, which will lead to culture and systems change.

It is a horrible reality that many more lives will be lost before the exemption takes effect.


Too local

During the press conference, it was asked why this exemption is being applied only to BC, and not to all of the country, as the decision has been made at a national level. Bennett’s response was that BC is the proving ground, and that building evidence about the benefits of the exemption will take time. As with changes in cannabis legislation, data was gathered over time before a final decision was made.


It’s all about the timing

Finally, many advocates and PWLLE have questioned the timing of the announcement, coming exactly one day before members of Parliament voted on Bill C-216 on June 1st. This was a private member’s bill from NDP MP Gord Johns that had been endorsed by Moms Stop the Harm and many other advocacy groups. If it had passed the vote and gone to committee review, the legislation could have effectively decriminalized simple drug possession across the country. (Learn more about politicians’ response to Bill C-216). Sadly, the legislation was not passed, and we are left wondering about the timing of the previous day’s announcement and how it may have discouraged MPs to vote for progressive legislation.

As we wait for this exemption to come into effect next year, and as advocates decide on next steps in BC and nationally after Bill C-216 got voted down, clearly there is much more work to be done on decriminalization. PAN continues to support and will continue to advocate for decriminalization for all – and in ways that reflect the leadership and recommendations of people with lived and living experience.


In their words

Gord Johns, MP said  “The families of thousands of Canadians are burying loved ones right across Canada right now…. We need a national approach,” he said, adding that the Liberals are taking a “piecemeal, incremental” approach that is “costing lives every day.”

Moms Stop the Harm, on Twitter: “Thank you @GordJohns for trying, for understanding that this should not be about party politics. This is not the end for us.  Anyone who has buried a child knows how to fight on. #StopTheHarm #BillC216 #DecriminalizeAlready.”

Advocate Garth Mullins, on Twitter: “Yesterday, Lib & Con MPs defeated Canada’s first comprehensive proposal to start winding down the drug war.  Thank you for trying, @GordJohns. I was amazed to see this attempt.”

BC First Nations Justice Council Chair Doug White, Q.C. in a statement released “Addiction has no geographical boundaries. If we are working toward harm reduction by decriminalization to reduce users fear and isolation, the needs of those living in remote communities must also be considered. We hope to see the threshold raised to 4 grams for personal use as soon as possible.”

Lisa Lapointe, BC’s chief coroner, commented “I would have to say, honestly, that this guideline for non-enforcement for small amounts of substances is not going to make a significant difference in the short term.”


Learn More:

Joint media statement: “We need decriminalization for all”: Drug policy and human rights organizations say model in British Columbia leaves many behind

Drug user activist on federal decision to decriminalize small amounts of drugs

Exemption from Controlled Drugs and Substances Act:  Personal possession of small amounts of certain illegal drugs in British Columbia (January 31, 2023 to January 31, 2026)

BC receives exemption to decriminalize possession of some illegal drugs for personal use



Questions? Feedback? Get in touch! J. Evin Jones, Executive Director, [email protected]