British Columbia is set to become the first province to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illicit drugs — but drug users, advocates, and the province's chief coroner warn the threshold of 2.5 grams set by the federal government ignores the hard realities of how people buy and use drugs in the province.
Canadians 18 years of age and older will be able to possess up to a cumulative 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA within B.C. as of Jan. 31, 2023.
The province applied for an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in November 2021, with a threshold of 4.5 grams. The federal government lowered the threshold to 2.5 grams, citing feedback from law enforcement officials across B.C.
Kevin Yake, vice-president of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and a drug user of 40 years, said many entrenched drug users are dependent on far more than 2.5 grams a day, and that the policy, while significant, "sets them up for failure."
"At 4.5 grams, I thought that was low. Two-point-five grams, I think that's ridiculous," he said.
"I need that to wake up in the morning. For people with higher tolerances it doesn't really cut it at all," he said.
Yake said many users buy in bulk or with a partner, to save money and minimize the number of transactions that put them a risk.
"Now it's a new ball game — make sure I have enough for that day because I've got to score again."
Ryan McNeil, director of harm-reduction research at the Yale Program in Addiction Medicine and an affiliated scientist at the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, said the threshold fails to account for many of the dynamics of drug use specific to Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, where the highly toxic drug fentanyl pushes people to use higher and higher amounts.
"One of the dynamics of fentanyl is that it's a shorter-acting opioid than heroin, so over time we see people using it in higher volumes than they would have previously," he said.
"There are some people who potentially might eliminate and disentangle the police from their lives and that's important — but it's going to leave so many people behind. In that regard it's really a policy that represents a half-measure."
Carolyn Bennett, federal minister of mental health and addictions, said the government's decision to reduce the threshold for possession from 4.5 to 2.5 grams was based on input from law enforcement across the country.
She said the threshold is a "starting point," that can be adjusted as needed.
Bennett said law enforcement data revealed 85 per cent of drug seizures are for quantities less than two grams, though it wasn't specified what time frame and region that data was specific to.
The British Columbia Association of Chiefs of Police said the average amount of hard drugs seized across departments varies from an average of 1.9 grams for the Vancouver and Abbotsford Police departments, to 1.6 grams for the Victoria Police department, and 1.3 grams for the RCMP North District.
Some measurements factor in the weight of the drug packaging, while others do not.
Details of police enforcement unknown
Vancouver Police said in a statement that it supports harm reduction measures and is waiting on the province and Police Services for guidance on how officers will enforce the threshold.
McNeil said it's key to know how much discretion law enforcement will have, and what tools they will use, in determining how the threshold is applied.
"Two-point-five grams is difficult to eyeball — how are police necessarily going to be equipped to eyeball that in the field? Does that mean this might become a mechanism by which anything above that threshold becomes understood to be potentially possession with the intent to sell, or marks someone as potentially selling drugs?" he said.
"We need to raise questions about how this will actually be implemented in real world settings and whether it might perpetuate the inequities that we see in the policing and potential incarceration of especially Indigenous people but also other folks who are racialized."
Yake, who said VANDU will continue advocating for a higher legal threshold, said he believes the federal government should have consulted with drug users and health-care workers, rather than law enforcement bodies from across the country.
"I just see more money for the police and more headaches and obstacles for the user," he said.
"It's not a cure, legalizing a little bit of narcotics. It's got to be more than that, having safe supply that's tested every day before it goes out to the user, guaranteeing that person's not going to drop dead from a heavy, heavy dosage of fentanyl, which is poison."
More than 9,400 people in B.C. have died of toxic drug overdoses since the province declared a public health emergency in 2016, an average of six people a day.