VANCOUVER, Jan 31 (Reuters) – The western Canadian province of British Columbia began a three-year pilot program on Tuesday to stop prosecuting people for carrying small amounts of heroin, methamphetamine, ecstasy or crack, as part of of an effort to combat a drug overdose crisis.
BC accounts for about a third of the 32,000 overdose and trafficking deaths nationwide since 2016, according to official data. The province declared the drug overdose a public health emergency that year.
The problem has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted illicit drug supply chains and support services, leaving people with more toxic drugs than they used alone.
Preliminary data released by the province on Tuesday showed there were 2,272 suspected deaths from illicit drug toxicity in 2022, the second-largest annual number ever recorded, behind 2021, which had 34 more deaths.
The government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in May that it would be let BC decriminalize drugs in a one-of-a-kind waiver in Canada. By not prosecuting people who transport small amounts of drugs, the British Columbia government hopes to address the problem as a health issue and not through the criminal justice system.
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The province says the waiver is intended to reduce the stigma associated with substance use and make it easier for people to approach authorities for guidance.
Robert Schwartz, a professor at the University of Toronto, said the move was commendable as a first step, but more needed to be done to tackle the drug problem.
“The problem we have with these substances is that we have a huge illicit supply that is doing a lot of damage,” Schwartz said. “To really deal with this, we need a comprehensive public health approach. This decriminalization is a first step.”
Drugs on the exemption list, which also includes fentanyl and other opioids, remain illegal and the arrest exemption is only for possession of up to 2.5 grams for personal use.
“For many years we have had a de facto policy of not arresting people for personal drug possession,” but this change will mean fewer seizures of small amounts of drugs, a spokesman for the Vancouver Police Department said.
Other Canadian communities are closely watching the pilot. They also face an increase in drug overdose deaths.
Many health experts argue that decriminalization would encourage drug users to use them in safer spaces where they can access medical care.
Reporting by Ismail Shakil in Ottawa and Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto Editing by Deepa Babington
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