British Columbia’s provincial health officer declared a public health emergency in 2016 due to the alarming number of drug-related deaths. In 2020 alone, 1,546 deaths in BC were attributed to illicit drug toxicity. In response to the ongoing toxic drug crisis in British Columbia, the provincial government was granted an exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act by Health Canada to temporarily decriminalize personal possession of small quantities of select illicit drugs in effect until January 2026. This approach aims to recognize addiction as a health-care issue rather than a criminal one, focusing on harm reduction and combating stigma.
Legalization versus decriminalization
A selected number of drugs have been decriminalized, not legalized; buying, selling, producing or transporting drugs out of province and country is still illegal. Decriminalization means that possessing small amounts of drugs for personal use is not criminal. Opioids such as heroin, fentanyl and oxycodone, as well as cocaine and methamphetamine, have been decriminalized, which means if you are above the age of 18 and possess less than 2.5g total of any of the mentioned drugs, you will not be penalized nor will they be confiscated by law enforcement.
Check your drugs
However, drugs such as benzos are not included in the decriminalized list, which means that possession of any drugs not included can result in criminal charges. It is important to note that BC’s drug supply is notoriously toxic, and benzos are commonly found in many substances. Possession of drugs cut with benzos or any drug not included in the decriminalization list can still result in criminal charges and confiscation of substances.
Accessing harm reduction
Penalizing individuals for addiction has perpetuated stigma and made accessing harm reduction difficult and stigmatizing. Harm reduction is an evidence-based practice to reduce adverse personal, social and health risks associated with substance use. Harm reduction practices may include services such as connection to counselling, methadone therapy, naloxone distribution and checking drugs. For example, Ask Wellness, Kipp-Mallery Pharmacy and supervised consumption sites in Kamloops offer anonymous drug-checking services which help reduce the risk of drug toxicity. You can opt-in to receive toxic drug supply alerts by sending the keyword JOIN to ALERTS (253787). In addition, harm reduction supplies and services are available through Interior Health and community organizations.
How does this impact campus life?
On-campus policies and regulations remain unchanged. Regulation exists around the consumption of alcohol or medical cannabis on campus property, as stated in ADM 05-3. Possession, consumption and encouraging the use of illegal substances in the residence community are banned. Cannabis and alcohol possession is allowed in residences, but cannabis consumption on the property is prohibited. If you have questions about campus substance use policies, contact a Student Affairs case manager at email@example.com. In addition, the Wellness Centre offers various resources about harm reduction and substance use; stop by OM 1479 to learn more.
Temporarily decriminalizing select illicit drugs may help refocus addiction as a health concern. However, more work must be done to question individual biases around substance use and make mental-health services and harm reduction more accessible.
Amna Qazi is a nursing student and Student Storyteller who worked with the Wellness Community of Practice on this article and infographics.