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Exemption ≠ Decriminalization

The illicit drug poisoning crisis continues to exact a heavy toll. In British Columbia, the Coroners Service recorded more deaths from drug poisoning in 2021 than in any other year. The record-high 2236 deaths documented in 2021 was more than double the number recorded in 2016, when BC’s Provincial Health Officer first declared the opioid-related overdose crisis a public health emergency.[1] According to the Coroners Service’s most recent data, 2022 is slated to match or exceed this pace, contributing to the deadly epidemic that has taken over 30,000 lives across Canada to date. By way of sombre but necessary comparison, the COVID-19 pandemic has so far contributed to over 42,000 lives lost across the country. While that public health emergency has attracted a concerted and nation-wide mobilization of protective measures, resources, and coordination between all sectors of society to lessen and overcome its worst effects, the drug poisoning crisis has not. Without a commensurate response, this parallel crisis will continue inexorably along this devastating path.

Missed Opportunities: Bills C-5 and C-216

Against this backdrop, the response to the drug poisoning crisis from the federal government[2] has been woefully inadequate. On June 15, 2022, the House passed government Bill C-5, An Act to Amend the Criminal Code and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA), sponsored by the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada David Lametti. While the focus of Bill C-5 lies in removing mandatory minimum penalties for all drug offences under the CDSA and the Criminal Code, it nevertheless does not fully decriminalize simple possession. Indeed, the BC Civil Liberties Association previously criticized Bill C-22, the identical predecessor to Bill C-5, for not going far enough to shift Canada away from the damaging criminal law approach to drug use that has systemically and disproportionately impacted Indigenous, Black, and marginalized people within Canada’s criminal legal system.

Adherence to this disappointing status quo is difficult to reconcile with the mandate letter addressed to Canada’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett. The letter called for “a comprehensive strategy to address problematic substance use in Canada”, including efforts to improve public education, improve access to evidence-based treatment and harm reduction services, and develop standards for substance-use treatment programs.[3] Put simply, the federal government’s continued reliance on a criminal justice approach to drug use in Bill C-5 is incompatible with the public health approach envisioned by the mandate letter. This contradiction demonstrates a lack of coordination between federal ministries; a disappointing display of leadership that unfortunately comes at a time when concerted action is needed to stem the devastating tide of preventable drug poisoning deaths.

Similarly, it is disappointing to see the federal government’s rejection of private member’s Bill C-216, the Health-based Approach to Substance Use Act, brought forward by MP Gord Johns of Courtenay-Alberni, BC. That bill, which was defeated on June 1, 2022, would have recognized the treatment of substance use as a public health issue by accomplishing three things. First, it would have repealed the simple possession offences in the CDSA; second, it would have expunged the records of people with prior simple possession convictions; and third, it would have implemented a national strategy on substance use with measures to ensure access to a safe supply of drugs and increased access to harm reduction, treatment, and recovery services. If this sounds familiar, it is because it aligns closely with the comprehensive strategy contemplated in Minister Bennett’s mandate letter. For the federal government to tout the need for a public health approach while simultaneously making incremental adjustments to a flawed criminal regime is an incomprehensible, if not cynical, attempt to varnish its actions with the illusion of meaningful progress.

A Step Forward? BC Receives Exemption to Decriminalize Simple Possession

On May 31, 2022, the federal government took the historic step of granting the Province of BC’s request to exempt adults from being charged under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) with the personal possession of certain illegal drugs. The move to decriminalize simple possession – which has attracted support from BC Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and over 180 civil society organizations[4] – is a step in the right direction. Like other drug policy and human rights advocates, however, the BCCLA also views the announcement as a missed opportunity for the many people who will be left behind by the cumulative possession threshold of 2.5 grams once the exemption comes into effect in January 2023.

More broadly, continued reliance on the piecemeal regional exemptions made necessary under the current CDSA scheme is unconscionable. People in Canada cannot continue to wait with bated breath for the results of each exemption application when, according to the latest available data, individuals continue to die from drug poisoning at an average rate of 6 deaths per day in BC and 19 deaths per day across Canada. While the announcement is a positive development, the BCCLA remains deeply concerned that the federal government has not urgently prioritized a national public health approach to address the drug poisoning crisis.

The Way Forward: Drug Decriminalization Done Right

The federal government’s declarations to work collaboratively with provincial, territorial, and municipal partners ignore the reality that any amendments to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act will require a federal response. This reality is why the BCCLA endorses the civil society platform Decriminalization Done Right: A Rights Based Path for Drug Policy, which proposes fundamental changes to drug policy, including the full repeal of federal legislation criminalizing simple possession and necessity trafficking. The BCCLA recognizes that decriminalization is not a panacea, nor will it resolve the drug poisoning crisis on its own. Rather, full decriminalization – including the removal of all criminal sanctions and administrative interventions such as fines and drug seizures associated with simple possession – will go far to reduce the stigma that forces individuals to use drugs alone, to turn to a toxic supply, and to avoid seeking safe and non-judgmental health care and social supports. A meaningful federal response must include programs that address, by the government’s own assessment, an “increasingly toxic supply, increasing feelings of isolation, stress and anxiety, and limited availability or accessibility of services for people who use drugs”[5]. Therefore, the platform also calls for access to a safe supply of drugs, evidence-based harm reduction services, and culturally appropriate supports.

As the drug poisoning crisis worsens, experts and people with lived experience have called for a particular focus on the increasingly toxic drug supply. The BCCLA recognizes that framing substance use as a moral failure disregards the fact that the unpredictable and contaminated supply – which data indicates is driven primarily by fentanyl and increasingly with benzodiazepines – is killing people from all walks of life, in all areas of the province, and irrespective of their frequency of drug use. Further, hesitation around safe supply misses the mark when the BC Coroners Service continues to report zero deaths at supervised consumption and drug overdose prevention sites, with no indication that the few pilot programs of prescribed safe supply are contributing to illicit drug deaths. Therefore, the platform recognizes that non-coercive access to a regulated, consistent, and reliable supply of non-poisoned drugs is key to saving lives.

At a time when the latest modelling suggests that opioid-related deaths may only continue to increase throughout the remainder of 2022, the BCCLA reiterates the call for transformative, immediate, and coordinated action.


[1] BC Coroners Service, Illicit Drug Toxicity Deaths in BC January 1, 2012 – May 31, 2022, at https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/life-events/death/coroners-service/statistical-reports.

[2] **The Liberal Party of Canada has been the governing party during the periods referenced in this blog.

[3] Prime Minister of Canada, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health Mandate Letter, December 16, 2021, at https://pm.gc.ca/en/mandate-letters/2021/12/16/minister-mental-health-and-addictions-and-associate-minister-health.

[4] HIV Legal Network, Letter to Canadian Government: Decriminalize Simple Drug Possession Immediately, updated March 3, 2021, at https://www.hivlegalnetwork.ca/site/letter-to-canadian-government-decriminalize-simple-drug-possession-immediately/?lang=en.

[5] Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses. Opioid- and Stimulant-related Harms in Canada, Ottawa: Public Health Agency of Canada; June 2022, at https://health-infobase.canada.ca/src/doc/SRHD/Update_Deaths_2022-06.pdf, p 5.