With no time for half-measures, Canada needs full decriminalization nation-wide, led by lived experience and evidence

Monday, January 30, 2023This week, we are watching with great interest as the possession of some drugs in small amounts will finally be decriminalized in the Province of British Columbia. While in theory a positive step forward in the quest to end an escalating drug poisoning crisis that is driven by bad drug policy, we remain deeply concerned that this “decriminalization” model neglects the lived realities of those most at risk for drug poisoning and will continue to criminalize many people who use drugs in the province.

Moreover, the fact that it has taken months and months for the federal exemption to effectively decriminalize to come into effect – and only in British Columbia – is shameful; Canada recorded more drug poisoning deaths in 2022 than ever before. Canada cannot afford such delays in more progressive drug policy; they cost real human lives.

We know that the decision to decriminalize possession of only 2.5 grams total of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA is not in line with lived experience; this cumulative threshold is too low. To be fair, decriminalization must include the removal of criminal sanctions and all other penalties for simple drug possession for all people who use drugs, including youth. It must also include the removal of criminal sanctions for “necessity trafficking,” or selling and sharing drugs for subsistence, to support personal drug use costs, or to provide a safe supply.

As it stands, the BC model does little to counteract the harms done by more than a century of drug prohibition, including criminal records that continue to create barriers to employment and housing and that disproportionately haunt Black and Indigenous people in Canada.

It is long past time for Canada to adopt a rights–based approach to drug policy that includes the decriminalization of all drug possession for personal use and the selling or sharing of drugs for subsistence, to support personal drug use costs, or to provide safe supply. We must also provide accessible, sustainable safe supply to people across the country so that our loved ones and community members stop dying of needless poisonings.

We call on all levels of government to support and implement the recommendations of Decriminalization Done Right: A Rights-Based Path for Drug Policy, based on the expertise of people who use drugs and the civil society organizations that support them. Half-measures and stop-gap fixes will not end the crisis that drug prohibition has created. The continued criminalization of people who use drugs has led to more potent and dangerous drugs, hampered efforts to scale up harm reduction and safe supply programs, and contributed to a drug poisoning crisis that has resulted in almost 32,632 drug poisoning deaths nationwide between January 2016 and June 2022.

We need full decriminalization – done right – now.

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About the HIV Legal Network

The HIV Legal Network ( promotes the human rights of people living with HIV or AIDS and other populations disproportionately affected by HIV, punitive laws and policies, and criminalization, in Canada and internationally. We do this through research and analysis, litigation and other advocacy, public education, and community mobilization.


Janet Butler-McPhee,
Co-Executive Director
HIV Legal Network
Telephone: +1 647-295-0861