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What does drug decriminalization mean for the Sea to Sky?

B.C.’s exemption allowing possession of up to 2.5 grams of some illegal substances went into effect on Jan. 31
B.C.’s newly implemented policy decriminalizing the possession of up to 2.5 grams of some illegal drugs aims to erase the stigma surrounding substance use by treating it as a health-care issue rather than a criminal act.

British Columbia’s experiment in drug decriminalization has officially begun.

A provincial exemption to the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act went into effect on Jan. 31, making B.C. the first and only province to allow adults 18 and older to possess up to 2.5 grams of certain illegal substances for personal use, including heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA. The pilot is due to expire in three years, on Jan. 31, 2026.

That means rather than seizing drugs, police who encounter people in possession of these substances will instead offer information about health and social supports. B.C. officials say decriminalizing small amounts of the exempted substances will help reduce the numerous hurdles that prevent people from accessing those services, with the ultimate goal of saving lives.

“Instead of being treated as a criminal, they will be treated with care and compassion. It will help break down stigma; the fear and shame around substance use,” said B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside during a press conference in Vancouver on Jan. 30.

The province calls the policy change “a critical step in B.C.’s fight against the toxic drug crisis” that has claimed more than 10,000 lives since British Columbia first declared it a public health emergency in April 2016.

B.C.’s overdose death rate is more than double the national average. Last year, 2,272 British Columbians—or about six people per day—died as a result of suspected drug toxicity. It was the second-highest annual death count recorded in B.C., after the province tallied a record 2,306 fatalities in 2021.

Will decriminalizing the use of these substances help erase the stigma?

Whistler Community Services Society’s (WCSS) outreach team has been working with local RCMP to get the message out about the policy change through initiatives like its peer educator program and naloxone training sessions, said WCSS outreach services program manager Lisa Coulter.

“It’s been integrated into our outreach meetings from when we first found out about decriminalization, and there hasn’t been a single time that our outreach team has had a negative response to it,” Coulter said.

The exemption “is reducing the fear and shame—it’s people’s fear [that is] keeping their drug use silent, so now they don’t need to hide their drug use,” she added. It means those who actively want help “don’t need to avoid accessing treatment and support for it as well.”

For some people, drug use is a coping mechanism tied to underlying mental health struggles, explained Heather Quamme, a clinical counsellor who operates a private practice in Pemberton.  

"So by removing the stigma attached to the use of the drugs, then that also allows them to discuss the underlying reasons as to why they're using," she said. 

Quamme is clear to point out that not everyone who chooses to use drugs deals with mental health issues, but in any case, decriminalization means "the focus isn't on illegal activity, it becomes a focus on why is this person using?" she said. 

Decriminalizing the illegal substances will likely carry the added benefit of making parents or main caregivers feel more comfortable seeking help if they feel they need it, without the fear of having their children taken away complicating that decision, she added. 

Still, some critics say that while the policy change is a step in the right direction, the 2.5-gram threshold is too low, and argue decriminalization alone won’t improve the drug crisis unless it is accompanied by increased access to support services and safer supply.

What supports and services exist in Whistler?

One new program for Whistler is the “Situation Table” or “Hub,” an initiative that will bring key community stakeholders like WCSS, the RCMP, Vancouver Coastal Health, the Howe Sound Women’s Centre, school counsellors and others together for in-person weekly meetings, with the goal of identifying high-risk community members and discussing how best to support those individuals from a holistic perspective.

Meanwhile, a newly purchased drug-testing machine called an FTIR spectrometer was installed in Whistler on Feb. 8, Coulter said.

Once WCSS staff complete the necessary training, the equipment—which is frequently available at music festivals and supervised overdose prevention sites throughout B.C.—will be available to anyone looking to find out exactly which substances are in a sample of any drug they plan to consume. “It’s not meant to say either ‘don’t do this drug’ or ‘do it,’ just so people are a bit more informed about what they’re taking, and then they can make that decision on their own,” Coulter explained.

For now, WCSS will continue encouraging Whistlerites to employ harm-reduction strategies such as avoiding using drugs alone; making use of life-saving tools like the Lifeguard app, naloxone kits and fentanyl testing strips available at WCSS headquarters; and helping anyone who is actively seeking support, whether through the range of programs and services available within the corridor or by connecting those individuals with appropriate resources outside of the Sea to Sky community.

“Our main role is to provide a safe, confidential, non-judgmental space to really talk about absolutely anything,” said Coulter. “There’s really no issue too little or too big.”

Even with those invaluable opportunities available, Quamme admitted that, in terms of mental health, "it's still quite difficult" for many locals seeking support to access the care or services they need. "Waitlists are quite long, and when I say long, I mean, they can be anywhere from two weeks to two months at times," she said.

"So if someone's in crisis, then it can be difficult to get access to [help], whereas these other medications, which actually may help in terms of a mood disorder, they're quite easy to get access to, I would suspect, if you really wanted to." 

Accessing some services, for example in-patient facilities, also requires individuals to relocate to Vancouver or other areas, at least temporarily. Being faced with the choice of whether to leave their community represents yet another barrier for people in rural areas, Quamme explained. 

What laws exist regarding the public consumption of illegal drugs in B.C.?

Neither the province nor the federal government have implemented laws banning public consumption of the drugs covered by the exemption. Local governments are, however, authorized to enact bylaws restricting public substance use, as Vancouver Island’s Campbell River did last month in advance of the exemption’s start date.

Some advocates say those bylaws only perpetuate the shame and stigma B.C.’s decriminalization aims to eliminate in the first place.

No such bylaw has been passed locally, a spokesperson for the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) confirmed Tuesday.

“The opioid crisis, which prompted this change, is a very serious, continent-wide issue. While we are dedicated to creating a healthy, safe community for all of our residents and visitors, including those directly affected by the health crisis, we are approaching this complex issue with caution,” an emailed statement from the RMOW explained.

“Staff are monitoring observable changes in use patterns, as related to the new Provincial exemptions, and will consider the need for potential related bylaws in the future, with input from the RCMP and Bylaw Enforcement Officers who work closest with the substance-using community.”

Police have legal authority to remove people found openly using drugs from private property, like restaurants or cafes, at the request of that property’s owner or operator.

It remains illegal to carry these substances, regardless of amount, while on the premises of elementary or secondary schools, licensed child-care facilities, or at airports. The measure does not apply to anyone under the age of 18. Drug trafficking remains illegal, and could result in criminal charges for those caught selling substances.

B.C. initially sought a 4.5-gram limit when it applied for the exemption in November 2021. The federal government instead approved a threshold of 2.5 grams based on feedback from law enforcement officials.

- With files from Graeme Wood