Advocates ‘horrified’ as Health Canada considers lowering threshold for drug decriminalization in British Columbia

Health Canada is considering B.C.’s request for decriminalization, but with a lower threshold for the amount of drugs a person can carry, a provincial minister has said.

British Columbia’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, Sheila Malcolmson, told reporters on Wednesday that she received an update on what Health Canada had “in mind” and that the decision was not definitive.

British Columbia has applied for an exemption to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs, in an effort to reduce the stigma associated with drug use and help save lives.

Addicts who buy over the threshold risk being arrested and having their drugs confiscated.

Leslie McBain, co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm, said Malcolmson shared the update with a circle of stakeholders this week.

“Everyone who is a lawyer was horrified by this,” McBain said.

British Columbia has requested a cumulative threshold of 4.5 grams for opioids, cocaine and methamphetamine, but McBain said the federal government is considering a cumulative threshold of 2.5 grams.

The office of Carolyn Bennett, federal minister of mental health and addictions, said the decision had not been made.

“We continue to work closely with all applicants throughout the review process. No decisions have been made on these applications as they are still being reviewed,” Bennett’s office said Wednesday in a statement.

“The goal is always to punish people”

The threshold originally proposed by the province was based on evidence presented by people who use drugs, Malcolmson said in a recent interview.

The cumulative threshold of 4.5 grams was already too low for many people who use drugs, McBain said.

Donald MacPherson, director of the advocacy group Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, echoed McBain’s concerns.

Defining appropriate thresholds is important because tolerance levels in people who use drugs are higher due to the increased presence of fentanyl in the drug market, MacPherson said.

“If the thresholds are too low, it exposes them to increased police surveillance, it exposes them to having to buy smaller quantities and therefore to access the illegal market more often,” he said.

Making the threshold cumulative means that the limit counts towards the total amount of drugs in possession, instead of the existing cap for each substance separately.

The 2.5 gram cumulative threshold also reduces the realities and needs of people who use drugs, as they often use multiple types of drugs on a regular basis, McBain said. “Sometimes they use what they can get.”

“We are in the sixth year of the worst drug toxicity crisis and death crisis the country has ever seen,” MacPherson said.

“It is imperative to move on to this type of policy change.”

McBain said she wanted to understand what will be accomplished by setting the threshold so low.

“The goal is always to punish people to get access to what they need. And the only way for them to access what they need at this point is to go to the illicit drug market” , she said.

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