Question Period Note: BC Data on Subsection 56(1) Exemption for Personal Possession


Reference number:
Date received:
Dec 21, 2023
Health Canada
Name of Minister:
Saks, Ya'ara (Hon.)
Title of Minister:
Minister of Mental Health and Addictions


In May 2022, in response to a request of the province of British Columbia (B.C.) and as one part of the province’s comprehensive response to addressing the overdose crisis, the former federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health, Dr. Carolyn Bennett, granted a three-year exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) so that adults 18 years of age and older in the province will not face criminal charges for personal possession of small amounts of certain illegal drugs. This means that between January 31, 2023 and January 31, 2026, adults in B.C. found in possession of up to a cumulative 2.5 grams of certain illegal drugs for personal use, will not be arrested or charged with possession, or have their drugs seized. Instead, individuals will be provided with information on available services and, if requested, support in connecting with services. There are some exceptions to the exemption applying to certain locations including schools, child care facilities, and in motor vehicles. Based on feedback from key partners, including law enforcement, BC requested to prohibit possession at additional locations: playgrounds, splash pads, wading pools, skateparks. This amendment was granted in September 2023. BC has now tabled legislation to regulate the use of drugs listed in the exemption in certain public spaces including those added to the exemption as well as broader locations including parks, beaches, and bus stops. There is some concern that the exemption and subsequent adjustments are based on politics rather than data.

Suggested Response:

The original parameters of the federal exemption were in response to the request made by the province of BC, including for its application in public spaces.
Based on feedback from law enforcement and other municipal partners, the BC government determined that additional measures were required to address concerns with public use.
Our government acted quickly to respond to BC’s request to amend their exemption to improve their ability to maintain community safety.
Our government is aware that data is a key tool that will be used to gauge progress moving forward.
We have been clear from the outset that we would rigorously monitor and evaluate the impact of the exemption and make adjustments if needed to address any unintended challenges.
We remain committed to working with BC and other stakeholders to support the ongoing effective implementation of this exemption.
The original exemption was developed in a manner which respected the ability of local governments to create bylaws, including governing public use, or for police to use other enforcement tools such as laws prohibiting trespassing or mischief.
However, following implementation and ongoing engagement with stakeholders, it became clear that a consistent, province-wide tool would be more effective.
The amendment and proposed BC legislation are expected to further support safe community spaces without increasing stigma that can drive people to use drugs alone.
We have put in place controls to monitor this exemption.
BC must provide Health Canada with monthly, quarterly, and annual data updates, in addition to a third party evaluation. Officials meet regularly to clarify the data and work through any issues.
This is in addition to an arm’s length evaluation led by the Ontario Node of the Canadian Research Initiative in Substance Misuse (CRISM), a team of leading researchers in the area of substance use in Canada.
To develop the evaluation framework, CRISM collaborated with other national and international experts. CRISM also meets quarterly with an advisory board of experts from fields including health, policy, and economy.
This Government is committed to taking a public health and compassionate approach to people who use drugs, while also making sure people feel safe in their communities.
The amendments to the exemption will help maintain safe community spaces for children without increasing stigma that can drive people to use drugs alone.
We will continue to support BC to address this long-standing public health and safety challenge, including as BC advances its proposed legislation to compliment the objectives of the exemption.
The Letter of Requirements sets out actions that are critical to the success of this exemption and requires regular reporting to Health Canada.
BC is collecting information, including data published in their data snapshot.
There is more work to be done, and we are working with the province to ensure there is rigorous monitoring and analysis of the data and evidence.
We are committed to continuing to closely monitor this exemption to assess impact and inform mitigation measures for any unintended consequences



Additional Information:

Since 2016, more than 38,500 people have died of an overdose in Canada.
In B.C., a report that examined illicit drug toxicity deaths in the province from August 2017 to July 2021 found that 52% of people who died were using drugs alone, however, following the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions in April 2020, this percentage increased to 61%.
Indigenous and racialized communities in B.C. have been, and continue to be, disproportionately impacted by the overdose crisis and are overrepresented in the criminal justice system.
Canada is treating substance use as a health issue, not a criminal one. Stakeholders have reported that stigma and fear of criminalization cause some people to hide their drug use, use alone, or use in other ways that increase risk of harm to the person who is using drugs and their community. Stakeholders have also reported that stigma and fear act as barriers to many in accessing important health and social services, including treatment, and that reducing stigma can help save lives.
Since the exemption in BC related to personal possession came into effect in January 2023, some BC municipalities, law enforcement, and community members have raised concerns that the exemption increases risk of public drug use without providing law enforcement with the necessary tools to manage this risk.
Public drug use is a longstanding issue that pre-dates the granting of the exemption. To date, there is no data that indicates that the exemption has led to an increase in public drug consumption.
To address this concern BC tabled Bill 34, the Restricting Public Consumption of Illegal Substances Act on October 5, 2023. This legislation would prohibit the use those drugs in certain locations including within 15 m of spaces designed specifically for children: playgrounds, splash pads, wading pools, and skateparks, as well as broader locations such as sports fields, beaches, parks, and outdoor community recreation areas, as well as within 6 m of certain locations such as: places where the public have access, a workplace, the outside of a residential entrance to which the public has access, and public transit bus stops.
While the province was developing this provincial legislation, BC requested an amendment to the exemption to prohibit possession in additional spaces designed specifically for children: playgrounds, splash pads, wading pools, and skateparks. The amendment was granted on September 7, 2023.
Some stakeholders are criticizing both levels of Government for not acting fast enough to address public use and community safety concerns.
In September, BC published a data snapshot on substance use and mental health system of care, which includes data being monitored through the BC exemption dashboard (not public) as well as progress updates on other pieces of the BC government’s overall approach to the overdose crisis. Data to date primarily sets a baseline that will be used to gauge progress moving forward.