B.C. to request exemption from Health Canada to decriminalize drug possession

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B.C. will officially request a federal exemption from Health Canada to decriminalize personal possession of drugs in the province.

“Stigma drives people to hide their drug use, avoid health care and use alone,” said Sheila Malcolmson, minister of mental health and addictions. “Through province-wide decriminalization, we can reduce the fear and shame that keep people silent about their drug use and support people to reach out for help, life-saving supports and treatment.”

The province said it has been working on an agreement to outline the exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substance Act with Health Canada.

B.C. is also boosting funds to secure recently expanded overdose prevention services for people at high risk of overdose. A new $45 million investment over the next three years will extend and enhance funding announced in August last year. 

It will support people who use drugs by enabling health authorities to continue scaling up their overdose prevention services, including inhalation sites to meet the growing need for this mode of consumption, the province said. 

Health authorities are hiring new registered nurses who can prescribe addiction treatment medications, in addition to social workers and peer support workers for new and existing interdisciplinary outreach teams.

Currently, more than 23,000 people are receiving some form of opioid agonist treatment in B.C. — more than at any other time, according to the province.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is having devastating effects on people who use drugs — illicit substances are more toxic and people are struggling with increased isolation,” Malcolmson said. “Our government is committing to sustain and enhance services in every health authority to prevent overdose deaths and connect people to supports.”

Key issues for consideration, according to the province, are defining simple possession, determining allowable drug amounts and ensuring the readiness of law enforcement, health and social services. Consultation with Indigenous partners, peers, law enforcement, municipalities and public health officials is being planned.

To date, 82 registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses have enrolled to complete their training to prescribe medications for opioid use disorder, the province said.

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