Exemption from Controlled Drugs and Substances Act:  Personal possession of small amounts of certain illegal drugs in British Columbia (January 31, 2023 to January 31, 2026)

In response to a request from the province of British Columbia (BC), 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.

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The exemption explained

The Exemption in full is available here.

The federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health granted the province of British Columbia (BC)'s request for a subsection 56(1) exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act for adults (18 years of age and older) in the province to possess small amounts of certain illegal drugs for personal use. BC has referred to this as "decriminalization of personal possession of illegal drugs".

What this means is that 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 a cumulative total of up to 2.5 grams of certain illegal drugs for personal use. Instead, all individuals found in possession of substances listed in the exemption of up to 2.5 grams for personal use will, at minimum, be provided with information on available local health and social services. They can also be provided with assistance to connect with those services if requested. The exemption only covers possession for personal use by adults (18 and over) in BC with no intent to traffic, produce or export.

Why

British Columbia has been greatly impacted by overdose deaths and related harms, and declared the overdose crisis a public health emergency in 2016. As part of the province's comprehensive public health response, BC 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.

Based on key information provided by BC through its request, including but not limited to, results of its consultations, readiness and capacity of its health and social system and of its law enforcement, the federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health granted this exemption to support the public health response to the overdose crisis in BC. Comprehensive monitoring and evaluation from the federal government will help to inform whether the exemption is contributing to the comprehensive approach to reduce stigma and harms related to substance use and increase access to health and social services for people who use drugs.

Substance use is a public health issue that is shaped by complex factors, many of which can be beyond an individual's control. As mental health and substance use among Canadians have worsened throughout the pandemic, it is clear that solutions to the overdose crisis must consider broader health and social issues.

Who

This exemption applies to all adults 18 years of age and older in BC.
Youth under the age of 18 are not covered by this exemption. Youth aged 12 to 17 are still subject to the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

Where

This exemption applies in British Columbia. In all other Canadian provinces and territories, the existing laws regarding illegal drugs still apply.
The exemption will not apply in the following locations:

This means that anyone possessing any amount of any illegal drugs in these locations could be charged with a criminal offence.

In addition, there are special restrictions that apply to personal motor vehicles, watercraft and public transit.

This exemption does not change Canada's border rules. Taking illegal drugs across the Canadian border – either exiting or entering – remains illegal even if travelling to and from BC, where an exemption will be in place. It can result in serious criminal penalties both in Canada and abroad.

When

The exemption will come into effect on January 31, 2023 until January 31, 2026. Until then, current laws apply in BC. Possession of the illegal drugs identified in the exemption for personal use, unless authorized, remains a criminal offence until the exemption comes into effect.

Until January 31, 2023, the province of BC will prepare for the exemption's implementation, including training of local law enforcement and an education and awareness campaign in the province.

Which illegal drugs and how much

Under the exemption, adults aged 18 years and older in BC will not be arrested or charged for the possession of four types of illegal drugs for personal use:

Adults (18 and over) in BC will not be arrested or charged for the personal possession of any combination of these illegal drugs that adds up to a combined total of 2.5 grams. Possession above this amount remains illegal and could be subject to criminal charges.
Adults (18 and over) are not allowed to possess:

Evidence on effective and safe threshold amounts of these drugs is limited. As this is the first exemption of its kind in Canada, ongoing monitoring from the federal government will inform whether it is contributing to its objectives which includes reducing stigma and harms related to substance use and increasing access to health and social services for people who use drugs in BC.

What remains criminal under this exemption

Unless otherwise authorized, any quantity of the illegal drugs listed in the exemption, in any amount (including 2.5 grams and less), cannot be:

It remains a criminal offence for Canadian Armed Forces members subject to the Code of Service Discipline to possess the drugs listed in the exemption, unless otherwise authorized.

Motor vehicle and watercraft activities

Possession of any illegal drugs, including those listed in the exemption, remains illegal:

The exemption also specifies conditions on safe storage of the illegal drugs listed in the exemption:

How was this decision made

The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) is one of the federal drug control statutes. It has a dual purpose to protect public health and maintain public safety. Part of the CDSA provides authority to grant exemptions from any or all of the provisions of the CDSA, if, in the opinion of the Minister, the exemption is necessary for a medical or scientific purposes or is otherwise in the public interest.

Each request received is considered on a case-by-case basis, based on the dual public health and public safety objectives of the CDSA.

Factors that the Minister considered in assessing this request from BC included:

Requirements

Letter of Requirements

Successful implementation of the exemption will require that BC follow through on the actions outlined in its request. The federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health has sent a Letter of Requirements to BC's Minister of Mental Health and Addictions outlining these necessary actions, including:

Health Canada will be monitoring closely the implementation of this exemption and the adherence to the Letter of Requirements.

This exemption is not legalization

This exemption means that adults (18 years of age and older) in BC will not be subject to criminal charges for the possession of some illegal drugs. It is an exemption that applies in the specific jurisdiction of BC and is time-limited.

In this case, adults (18 years of age and older) in BC who possess the illegal drugs listed in the exemption, in an amount up to 2.5 grams for personal use will not be subject to criminal charges and the drugs will not be seized. Instead, law enforcement will provide information on local health and social services and voluntary referrals to those services. The exemption only covers possession for personal use by adults (18 and over) in BC with no intent to traffic, produce or export.

Federal response to the overdose crisis

The Government of Canada continues to take a comprehensive approach to addressing substance use and the overdose crisis, this includes continuing to support critical harm reduction, treatment, housing and other services for people who use drugs or who are in recovery. Since the onset of the crisis, the Government of Canada has responded quickly to implement a wide range of measures to help save lives and meet the needs of people who use drugs.

This is one additional tool that the federal government is providing to BC to help them address substance use harms and overdose in its jurisdiction. Ultimately, the goal is to end this crisis.

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