British Columbia recriminalizes illegal drug use amid pilot program

May 8, 2024, 5:47 PM

Photo: Paramedics from B.C. Ambulance respond to a drug overdose in downtown Vancouver, Wednesday, ...

Paramedics from B.C. Ambulance respond to a drug overdose in downtown Vancouver, Wednesday, June 23, 2021. (File photo: Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press, via AP)

(File photo: Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press, via AP)

Canada’s federal government has approved British Columbia’s request to recriminalize illegal drugs. The move comes a year into a three-year pilot program, according to The Canadian Press.

The pilot program allowed adults to carry up to 2.5 grams of drugs for personal use without facing criminal charges, reported CBC News.

However, The Canadian Press reported that the recriminalization represents a “major policy climbdown for the provincial NDP government.” But even though the pilot program didn’t necessarily work, Canada’s mental health and addiction minister, Ya’ara Saks told The Canadian Press it doesn’t mean it was a failure.

“This is the first time this has been done,” Saks told reporters on Parliament Hill, as reported by The Canadian Press. “As in any pilot, it is a process of learning.”

The province’s public safety minister, Mike Farnworth, told The Canadian Press on Tuesday that while they want to address addiction, that doesn’t mean anything goes.

He said that during the pilot program, police were unable to deal with public drug use, making public spaces more dangerous.

According to British Columbia’s Coroners Service, there were 192 suspected unregulated drug deaths in March 2024 in British Columbia. That’s an 11% decrease from the number of deaths in March 2023, at 215, but an 8% increase from the number of deaths in February 2024, at 177. The most deaths in 2024 in British Columbia have been in Vancouver, Surrey and Nanaimo.

British Columbia released a chart that shows the number of deaths from 2016, when a public health emergency was declared, to 2022. In 2016, the number of deaths was nearly 1,000, while in 2022, the number of deaths was nearly 2,300. A large jump is shown from 2019 to 2020. However, the pilot program didn’t start until 2023.

Similar move seen in Oregon

Last month, Oregon ended a three-year decriminalization effort that critics called a “massive failure.” Having illegal drugs was only punishable by a ticket and a maximum fine of $100, now possession is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail. But the law also establishes treatment to be offered as an alternative to criminal penalties. It encourages law enforcement to divert people to addiction and mental health services instead of the criminal justice system.

More here: Oregon ends decriminalization of drugs, joins Washington in pushing jail or treatment

Seattle makes illegal drug use gross misdemeanor

Last September, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance that allows officers to arrest people for using drugs in public, specifically in situations where they deem the person a threat to others. It aligns the city’s drug use with state legislation passed earlier in 2023.

Past coverage: Seattle City Council drug ordinance goes into effect

The ultimate goal, according to Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell’s Office, was to craft a local law that puts Seattle in compliance with the new state law that took effect July 1. The legislation will divert $20 million to increase treatment and overdose response services and $7 million for new capital investments focused on leading with drug treatment.

However, Seattle’s drug laws have been debated for years as some seek harder penalties, while others want to focus more on treatment.

Contributing: Kate Stone, KIRO Newsradio; Frank Sumrall, MyNorthwest

Julia Dallas is a content editor at MyNorthwest. You can read her stories here. Follow Julia on X, formerly known as Twitter, here and email her here.

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British Columbia recriminalizes illegal drug use amid pilot program