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B.C. seeking formal exemption from Health Canada to decriminalize personal possession of drugs

B.C. seeks decriminalization

UPDATE: 11:10 a.m.

It's been nine months since Premier John Horgan wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urging him to decriminalize the possession of personal amounts of drugs, to help reduce the skyrocketing number of overdose deaths in recent years. And while fast-tracking decriminalization was a key part of the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions mandate letter last fall, she announced Wednesday that the province is still working to formalize its request to Health Canada for an exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

During a press conference Wednesday that marked five years since the overdose public health emergency was declared, Sheila Malcolmson said her ministry has been working with the federal government on the formal application that would see possession of small amounts of drugs in B.C. exempt from criminal sanctions.

“Today is our signal to those who have been working on the front lines, to the people with living experience, that we're going to be drawing on their work and their advice to fulfill the detail of the application,” Malcolmson said.

“To do that with a view of the diversity of the needs across the province, both the large urban centres and rural and remote northern regions. This is a provincewide problem, and we're going to take that time to submit an application that reflects the diversity of our province.”

Since the public health crisis was declared in 2016, more than 7,000 British Columbians have died from illicit drug overdoses, with a record high 1,724 deaths coming in 2020 alone.

While acknowledging the urgency needed in finding solutions to the overdose crisis, Malcolmson would not disclose any estimated timeline of when the application would be submitted.

“We've mapped some work out with Health Canada on timeline,” she said.

“We feel the urgency of the situation, we're working as fast we can, and we have been since I became minister, and we'll have some more news on timeline when it's nailed down with Health Canada.”

She also announced an additional $45 million in funding over the next three years for additional supports for drug users, including expanding overdose prevention sites across the province and hiring nurses, social workers and support workers for outreach teams.

Last year alone, close to 3,000 overdoses occurred at overdose prevention sites in B.C., but not one person died at these sites.


ORIGINAL: 10 a.m.

The B.C. government announced Wednesday that it will officially request an exemption from the federal government to allow for the decriminalization of possessing personal amounts of drugs.

During a press conference Wednesday morning on the five-year anniversary of B.C.'s declaration of the overdose public health emergency, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson said the B.C. government is formalizing its request to Health Canada to seek a Section 56 exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, to decriminalize personal possession of drugs in B.C.

This section of the act allows the federal Health Minister to make an exemption if it's “necessary for a medical or scientific purpose or is otherwise in the public interest.”

Malcolmson said her ministry has been working with the federal government for months on the request, but she could not give an estimated timeline on when the formal application would be delivered.

She said decriminalization would help reduce the harmful stigma drug users face, while framing the overdose crisis as a health issue rather than a criminal one.

Wednesday's announcement comes after Malcolmson wrote to federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu in February asking for the exemption, but Malcolmson says now the process is being formalized.

Last summer, Premier John Horgan asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to decriminalize personal possession of drugs. Oregon state became the first American state to make the move earlier this year.

Overdose deaths across the country, but particularly in B.C., have skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the illicit drug supply has become more toxic due to the U.S.-Canada border closure, and people are using drug alone more frequently.

Since the crisis was declared in 2016, more than 7,000 British Columbians have died from illicit drug overdoses.

Malcolmson also announced a new $45 million investment over the next three years that will help fund new overdose prevention sites across the province, while adding outreach teams to help those struggling with addiction.

More to come.



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