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B.C. seeks exemption to decriminalize illicit drug use

The B.C. government is calling on the federal government to let them remove criminal penalties for people who possess small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use.

B.C. is now the first province in Canada to seek an exemption from Health Canada.

Provincial officials said the exemption would help reduce the fear and shame associated with substance use, which stops people from getting proper care.

“Substance use and addiction is a public health issue, not a criminal one,” said Sheila Malcolmson, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions.

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“B.C. is adding new health and substance-use care services almost weekly, but we know shame prevents many people from accessing life-saving care. That’s why it’s crucial to decriminalize people who use drugs.”

B.C. declared a public health emergency back in 2016 and since then, 7,700 British Columbians have died.

Government officials said before the pandemic there was a decrease in death due to toxic drugs, but now drug poisoning deaths have reached all-time highs.

“Criminalizing members of our communities who use drugs has resulted in decades of causing further harms to many who are already suffering from mental or physical health challenges and/or the effects of emotional or physical trauma,” said Lisa Lapointe, B.C.’s chief coroner.

“Decriminalization will help shift our focus from punishment, which has resulted in social isolation, stigma and fear, toward a medical model that recognizes substance use as a health issue. This is an important step that, combined with increased access to safe supply and implementation of an evidence-based model of treatment and recovery, will help to save lives.”

The B.C. government said they worked with health and social service providers, Indigenous partners, people with lived and living experience, municipalities, law enforcement, advocacy organizations and clinical and research experts in the development of the application.

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