Decriminalizing people who use drugs in B.C.
Health Canada granted an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to the Province of B.C. From January 31, 2023 until January 31, 2026, adults in B.C. are not subject to criminal charges for the personal possession of small amounts of certain illegal drugs.
Last updated: September 14, 2023
On this page:
- Why we decriminalized personal possession of certain illegal drugs
- What changes
- What remains illegal
- Youth and the law
- How decriminalization was implemented
The decriminalization of people who possess certain illegal drugs for personal use is a critical step in B.C.’s fight against the toxic drug crisis.
It will help reduce the barriers and stigma that prevent people from accessing life-saving supports and services. Substance use is a public health matter, not a criminal justice issue.
Public health experts, police and advocates have called for decriminalization, pointing to a range of potential benefits.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry advocated for decriminalization as a key strategy to reduce stigma and address the toxic drug crisis in her 2019 report, Stopping the Harm: Decriminalization of People Who Use Drugs in B.C.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police endorses decriminalization as one part of an effective strategy to reduce public health and public safety harms.
International evidence on decriminalization
Decriminalization has been implemented in some form in many other jurisdictions including Portugal, Uruguay, Germany, Lithuania, Australia, the Czech Republic and Oregon, USA.
Available evidence suggests that decriminalization can be an effective way to reduce the harms associated with substance use and criminalization.
Decriminalization is not associated with increased rates of substance use. In Portugal, since decriminalization, rates of substance use and overdose deaths have remained below the European Union averages.
Decriminalization is expected to provide cost savings to the criminal justice system. In Portugal, since decriminalization, the proportion of prisoners sentenced for drugs has fallen from 40% to 15%; and the substantial reduction in arrests and charges alleviates pressure on the criminal justice system.
Health Canada granted an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to the Province of B.C. This is effective from January 31, 2023 to January 31, 2026.
Under this exemption, adults (18 years and older) in B.C. are not arrested or charged for possessing small amounts of certain illegal drugs for personal use. 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 are not subject to arrest or criminal charges and the drugs are not seized. Instead, they are offered information about health and social supports. This includes support with making a referral to local treatment and recovery services, if requested.
The exemption does not apply to K-12 schools, licensed childcare facilities, playgrounds, splash pads, wading pools, and skate parks.
- A combined total of more than 2.5 grams of the exempted illegal drugs
- Any amount of other illegal drugs not included in the exemption
Decriminalization is not legalization. Under this exemption, illegal drugs (including those listed above) are not legalized and will not be sold in stores. Unless otherwise authorized under the CDSA, drug production, trafficking, import and export remain illegal, regardless of the type or amount of drug(s) in possession.
In addition, the exemption does not apply to certain circumstances.
Certain public spaces and locations are not covered
Anyone found in possession of any amount of illegal drugs in these locations could be arrested and charged with a criminal offence, and have their drugs seized:
- On the premises of elementary and secondary schools and licensed child-care facilities
- Spray pools, commonly referred to as splash pads, wading pools, playgrounds and skateparks
- At airports
- On Canadian Coast Guard vessels and helicopters
In many cases, illegal drug use continues to be prohibited on private property. This includes places like shopping malls, bars and cafes. Police will continue to retain legal authority to remove people from these premises if open drug use is occurring against the wishes of the owner.
Local governments continue to have authority for developing appropriate local bylaws, in consultation with their local Medical Health Officer.
Travel and transportation
This exemption applies in British Columbia. In all other Canadian provinces and territories, the existing laws about illegal drugs continue to apply. The exemption does not change Canada's border rules, and taking illegal drugs across domestic and international borders, even for personal use, remains illegal. This applies whether exiting or entering the country, even if travelling to and from B.C. where the exemption is in place. Possession of illegal substances can result in serious criminal penalties both in Canada and abroad.
Special restrictions apply to personal motor vehicles, watercraft and public transit. Impaired driving remains illegal and subject to enforcement of applicable laws. Possession of any illegal drugs, including those listed in the exemption, remains illegal:
- In a motor vehicle or watercraft that is operated by a minor (under 18 year of age), whether or not it is in motion
The exemption also specifies conditions on safe storage of the illegal drugs listed in the exemption:
- In personal motor vehicles and on public transit, these drugs cannot be readily accessible to the driver
- On watercrafts, these drugs cannot be readily accessible to the operator
Members of the Canadian Armed Forces
It remains a criminal offence for Canadian Armed Forces members subject to the Code of Service Discipline to possess the drugs listed in the exemption, unless otherwise authorized.
The exemption does not apply to people under the age of 18.
Youth, 17 years and younger, who are found in possession of illegal drugs are subject to the federal Youth Criminal Justice Act. The Act promotes rehabilitation and reintegration of young persons who have committed offences. This can include referral by law enforcement or prosecutors to community or health services, or designated counselling services.
Schools, daycare facilities, splash pads, wading pools, skate parks and playgrounds
To ensure safety for youth, activities with illegal drugs, including possession, continue to be prohibited on the premises of schools, licensed childcare facilities, playgrounds, skate parks, splash pads, and wading pools. Policies around drug use in other workplaces and organizations will still be in effect to protect children and youth in settings, like community or recreation centres.
B.C. prepared for implementation by:
- Creating a robust plan for training police, including a phase one webinar for all officers in the province, and a second phase of training focusing on a health-focused approach to substance use will launch this fall
- Educating the public about these important changes
- Ongoing engagement with First Nations communities and broad stakeholders including:
- People who use drugs
- Law enforcement
- Racialized and diverse communities
- Business improvement associations
- Continuing to invest in the full range of mental health and substance use supports, including treatment and recovery services
Monitoring and evaluation
Monitoring and evaluation is a critical part of Health Canada’s requirements for B.C.’s exemption related to personal possession. Federal and provincial governments are working closely to evaluate and monitor implementation, early outcomes, public awareness and unintended consequences. B.C. is monitoring:
- Changes to law enforcement practices, changes in the socio-emotional wellbeing of people who use drugs, and pathways to services and treatment, alongside a range of data that demonstrate progress on the Province’s efforts to build up the system of care for mental health and addictions
- Tracking drug-related arrests, and charges from police agencies, alongside data from the BCCDC unregulated drug poisoning emergency dashboard
- Baseline findings from the Harm Reduction Client Survey, which includes interviews with people who use drugs
B.C.’s monitoring and evaluation plan aims to generate timely findings to inform ongoing implementation adjustments over time.
The BC Centre for Disease Control is conducting studies and surveys of people who use drugs to better understand their experiences with decriminalization.
Distinct from B.C.'s efforts, the federal government, through the Canadian Institutes for Health Research is funding third-party research to help assess the impact of the exemption on addressing substance use harms.
In addition to the Province's monitoring of decriminalization, B.C. has also published a mental health and substance use data snapshot that illustrates the work the province has been and will continue to do to build a system of care. This includes:
- Intervening early so people can access care sooner
- Reducing risk to save lives
- Connecting people to care when and where they need it
- Creating pathways to recovery and wellness so people can live healthy lives
Learn more about decriminalization in B.C.: