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To fight the opioid crisis, Canada tests decriminalizing possession

Addicts inject themselves in May 2011 at the Insite supervised injection center in Vancouver, Canada.
Laurent Vu The
AFP via Getty Images
Addicts inject themselves in May 2011 at the Insite supervised injection center in Vancouver, Canada.

In a policy shift aimed at reducing deaths from overdoses, Canada is decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs in the western province of British Columbia.

Drug overdose deaths have risen sharply across Canada over the past five years, with opioid-related deaths linked to fentanyl more than doubling.

British Columbia has been the hardest-hit province— it declared fentanyl a public health crisis six years ago — and provincial officials asked for federal permission to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of opioids, cocaine and methamphetamines.

The experimental policy, which takes effect in January 2023, will last three years.

British Columbia's minister of mental health and addictions, Sheila Malcolmson, says the move will put the focus on health care.

"By decriminalizing people who use drugs, we will break down the stigma that stops people from accessing life-saving support and services," she said in a statement.

In recent years Canada has introduced a number of health care-focused programs for addressing its overdose epidemic, including setting up supervised injection sites, providing tests to check drugs for fentanyl and making heroin available by prescription for those who haven't found success with other treatments.

But overdose deaths spiked at the start of the pandemic and remained high through 2021, according to the latest data available.

The policy change in British Columbia will apply to individuals 18 and older who are in possession of 2.5 grams or less of illicit drugs.

"We are granting this exemption because our government is committed to using all available tools that reduce stigma, substance use harms, and continuing to work with jurisdictions, to save lives and end this crisis," said Carolyn Bennett, Canada's federal minister of mental health and addictions.

In the U.S., voters in the state of Oregon approved a similar policy in 2020, decriminalizing personal use quantities of most illicit drugs under state law. That change was made without approval from the federal government.

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Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.