Decriminalization of Illicit Drugs

The BC government has been granted an exemption by Health Canada from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to decriminalize the possession of certain illegal drugs. This is one of the approaches by the provincial government to address the ongoing toxic poisoning crisis. The exemption began January 31, 2023 and is in effect until January 31, 2026.

Under this exemption, adults (18 years and older) in BC will not be arrested or charged for possessing small amounts of certain illegal drugs for personal use. The total amount of illegal drug(s) must be equal to or less than 2.5 grams. The illegal drugs covered by the exemption are: 

  • Opioids (such as heroin, morphine, and fentanyl)
  • Crack and powder cocaine 
  • Methamphetamine (Meth)
  • MDMA (Ecstasy)

Adults found in personal possession of any combination of these illegal drugs that adds up to a combined total of 2.5 grams or less will not be subject to criminal charges and the drugs will not be seized by police. Instead, they will be offered information about health and social supports, including local treatment and recovery services.

Also under the Health Canada exemption, the possession of illegal drugs is not allowed:

  • on K-12 School premises;
  • on child care facility premises;
  • in airports;
  • on Canadian Coast Guard vessels or in Canadian Coast Guard helicopters;
  • to a Canadian Armed Forces member who is subject to the Code of Service Discipline;
  • in a motor vehicle that is driven or operated by a minor, whether or not the vehicle is in motion;
  • in a watercraft that is operated by a minor, whether or not the watercraft is in motion;

Responding to local government concerns

Given the concerns raised by local governments since the introduction of the pilot project, Health Canada amended the exemption on September 18 to add the following areas to the list of those where possession of illegal drugs is prohibited:

  • Within 15 metres of any part of any play structure in a playground;
  • Within 15 metres of a spray pool or wading pool; and
  • Within 15 metres of a skate park. 

In addition to the federal government’s changes, the provincial government introduced legislation to further prohibit consumption of illicit substances in certain public spaces. Prohibited areas include playgrounds, spray and skate parks, residential and business building entrances, bus stops, parks, beaches, and sports fields.

Feedback on decriminalization

UBCM and BC local governments have provided feedback on decriminalization through:

  • Participation in the provincial Decriminalization Core Planning Table. UBCM sought expressions of interest through the Compass newsletter in summer 2021, and selected Councillor Murry Krause from the City of Prince George to act as the UBCM representative.
  • UBCM members endorsed resolution 2021-NR44, which asked the provincial and federal governments to declare a national public health emergency, and develop a national, holistic  plans for decriminalization, de-stigmatization, safe supply, and medical treatments.
  • A webinar for local governments on October 13, 2021. This webinar offered an opportunity for local governments to ask questions and highlight local concerns to provincial staff, prior to the government’s submission to Health Canada.
  • A delegation from Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions staff to UBCM’s Health and Social Development Committee in February 2022.
  • The 2022 Convention session on Decriminalization and Harm Reduction. Presentations for the Monday workshop are posted on the website.
  • Local Government Working Group on decriminalization. A call for expressions of interest was issued in September 2022 through the Compass. The Working Group is co-chaired by UBCM and MMHA. The group met three times in 2022 and will continue to meet in 2023. Communities participating in the Working Group are: Vancouver, New Westminster, Capital Regional District, North Vancouver (city), Whistler, Salmon Arm, and of Kamloops.
  • In collaboration with the BC Centre for Disease Control, the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions hosted a webinar on February 15, 2023 for local government elected officials and staff to discuss decriminalization and key implementation considerations. 
  • A 2023 Convention session on decriminalization facilitated a panel of provincial representatives, and a second panel on local government perspectives.  
  • UBCM members endorsed several resolutions related to the toxic drug crisis and decriminalization at 2023 Convention. SR3 called for immediate investment in wraparound care for people addicted to drugs; SR4 called for regulation on drug use in public spaces. 
  • In 2023, the membership endorsed resolution SR4. While the federal government had recently announced changes that would prohibit possession of illicit drugs within 15 meters of any play structure of a playground, a spray park or wading pool, or a skate park, there was a need for the provincial government to introduce fall 2023 legislation to further regulate the possession and use of illicit drugs in parks, beaches, sports fields and bus stops where children also gather.

  • BC local governments also endorsed 2023 resolutions seeking: 

    • geographically accessible, on-demand mental health and addiction treatment, detox and recovery services; overdose prevention sites with inhalation; and access to safe supply and drug testing for all regions of BC (SR3);

    • and preventative programs in the form of mental health treatment and well-being programs (NR7);

Compass articles

Resources for local governments: 

  • Backgrounder created by the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions
  • Frequently Asked Questions created by the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions
  • February 15 Webinar Presentation by MMHA and BC Center for Disease Control
  • Medical Health Officer contacts
  • Training on decriminalization. Local governments, including bylaw departments can access a training course, called Decriminalization in BC: Shifting to a Health Approach to Substance Use, offered by the Canadian Police Knowledge Network. The course provides an overview of the decriminalization framework. Local governments can register by sending an email to: Registration should be completed by a staff supervisor.
  • Provincial government's website on decriminalization of illicit substances
  • Ministry of Mental Health and Addiction’s Submission to Health Canada requesting an exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act under the provision of section 56 (1)
  • BC Center for Disease Control’s unregulated drug poisoning emergency dashboard, and information on engaging with medical health officers and responses to common community concerns about public substance use