On Tuesday, May 31, the Canadian government made a ruling that was the first of its kind for the country. Starting on January 31, 2023, the province of British Columbia will conduct a trial—lasting three years—in which people over the age of 18 will be able to possess up to 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA without arrest, seizure, or charge. Canada joins a handful of countries with existing decriminalization policies; others include Portugal, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and the United States (Oregon decriminalized possessing small amounts of hard drugs back in 2020).
A decriminalized drug resides in a constitutional no-man’s land, neither legal nor illegal. The policy essentially entails that possession won’t result in handcuffs and that a substance use disorder won’t be treated as a crime. “This is long overdue, says Daniel Werb, director of the Center on Drug Policy Evaluation at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. “This is something that people have understood for a really long time—that you can’t arrest your way out of this problem.”
And a problem it is indeed. The war on drugs has waged on for half a century, and the writing’s on the wall: It’s clearly not working. “The record is clear that the global war on drugs has been a total catastrophic policy failure, ” says Ben Perrin, a law professor at the University of British Columbia and author of Overdose: Heartbreak and Hope in Canada’s Opioid Crisis. Criminalizing drug use disproportionately targets the marginalized, including Black and Indigenous communities, the unhoused, and people with mental illness. And the stigma stemming from criminalization means that people are less likely to seek help, and more likely to use drugs alone, which contributes to higher rates of overdose.
But advocates of drug policy reform say decriminalization—or “decrim”—is just the first in a long list of major overhauls needed to address Canada’s catastrophic opioid epidemic. While a laudable policy move, the decision is but a bandage on this gaping wound, which only worsened throughout the pandemic. British Columbia is the epicenter of the crisis in Canada and has one of the highest rates of drug-related deaths in North America. The province’s opioid epidemic was declared a public health emergency in April 2016, and since then more than 9,400 people have died from overdoses.
Decrim advocates staunchly argue that bringing law enforcement into the equation has done nothing to lower that number. Plus, Canadian research shows that people who are incarcerated—whether for drug-related reasons or not—are at a substantial risk of overdosing upon release; one study found that in the two weeks after someone left prison, their risk of overdosing was more than 50 times higher than in the general population. Another found that one in 10 overdose deaths are in people who left prison in the last year. “In other words, jails are like a death sentence for many people with substance use disorders,” says Perrin.
Criminalization exacerbates a vicious cycle of poverty, stigma, discrimination, unemployment, and recidivism, all of which makes it harder to then stabilize substance use, says Adeeba Kamarulzaman, president of the International AIDS Society. (Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations, once said“A criminal record for a young person for a minor drug offense can be a far greater threat to their well-being than occasional drug use.”)