Decriminalizing people who use drugs in B.C.

Adults in B.C. are not subject to criminal charges for the personal possession of small amounts of certain illegal drugs. Health Canada granted an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to the Province of B.C. from January 31, 2023 until January 31, 2026.

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Last updated: January 31, 2023

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Why we decriminalized personal possession of some drugs

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. 


What changes

Health Canada granted an exemption from 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 going to be 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 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.


What remains illegal

Adults (18 and over) are not allowed to possess:

  • A combined total of more than 2.5 grams of these 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. Drug trafficking remains illegal, regardless of the amount of drug(s) in possession.

The exemption does not apply to certain circumstances.

Adults found in possession of any amount of illegal drugs in these locations could be charged with a criminal offence:

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 to pass bylaws restricting public substance use.  

Travel and transportation

This exemption applies in British Columbia. In all other Canadian provinces and territories, the existing laws about illegal drugs still apply. The exemption does not change Canada's border rules. Taking illegal drugs across domestic and international borders remains illegal. This applies whether exiting or entering the country, even if travelling to and from B.C. where the exemption is in place. It 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:

  • On 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.


Youth and the law

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 and daycare facilities

To ensure safety for youth, illegal drugs are prohibited on the premises of schools and licensed childcare facilities. 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.


How decriminalization was implemented

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 spring
  • Educating the public about these important changes
  • Engaging First Nations communities and broad stakeholders including:
    • People who use drugs
    • Law enforcement
    • Racialized and diverse communities
    • Youth
    • Business improvement associations
    • Municipalities
  • Continuing to invest in the full range of mental health and substance use supports, including treatment and recovery services

The provincial government has developed a robust monitoring and evaluation plan to monitor decriminalization. This plan was created in partnership with experts and stakeholders, and will focus on a range of indicators focused on outcomes associated with criminal justice, health and stigma related to substance use.


Resources

Learn more about decriminalization in B.C.:

For more information on how B.C. is tackling stigma around addictions, visit StopOverdoseBC.ca