Statement from the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health on the Overdose Crisis and the Exemption from Controlled Drugs and Substances Act:  Personal possession of small amounts of certain illegal substances in British Columbia (January 31, 2023 to January 31, 2026) 


May 31, 2022 | Vancouver, BC | Health Canada

Every day in Canada, the overdose crisis continues to take a tragic toll. It has and continues to be heartbreaking for families, friends and communities across the country. Collectively, we must recognize that substance use is a public health issue that is shaped by complex factors, many of which can be beyond an individual's control. These "root causes" include experiences of trauma; physical and mental health; income and access to stable housing; and the ongoing effects of colonization and the residential school system on First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities.

As mental health and substance use among Canadians have worsened throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that solutions to the overdose crisis must consider broader health and social issues. The goal must be to save lives. The Government of Canada has been investing heavily into ending this crisis, but more needs to be done, and innovative solutions must be pursued.

Since becoming the first federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health, I have met with stakeholders, experts, service providers, people with lived and living experiences and my counterparts in jurisdictions across Canada to discuss our common goal: decrease substance use harms, prevent overdose, reduce stigma and end this crisis. I have heard clearly that we must work together to innovate and find new ways to respond to the increasingly toxic illegal drug supply and save lives. We also heard that regions and communities across the country have different needs. We are committed to addressing substance use as a health issue, and move it out of the criminal justice system.

It is important to acknowledge that since 2020, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) has had a guideline in place for prosecutors that provides that criminal prosecution for simple possession of controlled substances should generally be reserved for the most serious cases, and that alternatives to prosecution and diversion from the criminal justice system should be considered for simple possession cases.

British Columbia (BC) has been severely impacted by overdose deaths and related harms, and declared the overdose crisis a public health emergency in 2016. As part of its comprehensive public health response to this crisis, the province requested a subsection 56(1) exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) so that adults in the province will not be subject to criminal charges for personal possession of small amounts of certain illegal drugs.

I have thoroughly reviewed and carefully considered both the public health and public safety impacts of this request.

Today, I have granted BC's request for a subsection 56(1) exemption. From January 31, 2023 to January 31, 2026, adults 18 and over in BC will not be subject to criminal charges for the possession of up to 2.5 grams of certain illegal drugs for personal use. We are granting this exemption because our government is committed to using all available tools that reduce stigma, substance use harms, and continuing to work with jurisdictions, to save lives and end this crisis.

This time-limited exemption is the first of its kind in Canada, and with it comes the responsibility for the health and safety of all people in BC. As part of the exemption request, BC has committed to a comprehensive implementation plan. We will be monitoring closely the fulfillment of these commitments as I made clear in a letter of requirements that I have sent to the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions of British Columbia. This letter lays out requirements to improving access to health and social services; providing law enforcement training and guidance; engaging with Indigenous partners; undertaking consultations with people who use drugs, law enforcement, racialized communities and other key stakeholders; leading effective public awareness. The exemption requires identifying the key public health and public safety indicators and conducting comprehensive monitoring and evaluation.

Throughout the exemption period, we will work with the province to analyze data and evidence, and assess impact to ensure it continues to be the right decision for people in BC. I assure you that real-time adjustments will be made based upon receipt and analysis of any concerning data. We look forward to undertaking this ground-breaking work with them in partnership.

The dedication, commitment and hard work of the province, as well as the municipalities, has provided the foundation for us approving this request. I would particularly like to commend the City of Vancouver's leadership on this issue. For many years now, Vancouver has been at the forefront of innovative approaches in addressing substance use in Canada, such as the Four Pillars approach that they laid out on drug policy, and through its ability to work collaboratively in various partnerships to support people who use drugs.

While approving this request is important, we remain committed to responding to this crisis from a whole-of-system approach, addressing the toxic drug supply, and doing everything we can to save lives. Our Government has launched many actions and investments to date to address the overdose crisis — safer supply programs, increased naloxone access, increased options for opioid agonist treatment, supervised consumption sites and drug checking technologies are essential elements of the comprehensive approach we are taking with our partners.

Today, I am also announcing an additional $11.78 million in federal funding for 14 projects through Health Canada's Substance Use and Addictions Program, here in British Columbia. By scaling up prevention, harm reduction and treatment efforts, these projects will help people who are at risk of experiencing substance-related harms and overdose.

We know that more needs to be done across the country and we must continue to support evidence-based initiatives that protect the health and safety of all Canadians.

Our government remains committed to working in partnership with all provinces, territories, municipalities, Indigenous communities, and experts, including individuals with lived and living experience, to support access to a comprehensive range of evidence-based services and supports. Together we will end this tragic crisis, and so that no more families, friends or communities will lose a loved one to a heartbreaking overdose.

Relevant links

The Honourable Carolyn Bennett, P.C., M.P.


Maja Staka
Office of the Honourable Carolyn Bennett
Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health

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