Exemption from Controlled Drugs and Substances Act: Personal possession of small amounts of certain illegal drugs in British Columbia (January 31, 2023 to January 31, 2026)
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In response to a request from the province of British Columbia (BC), from January 31, 2023 to January 31, 2026, adults (18 and over) in BC will not be subject to criminal charges for the possession of up to 2.5 grams of certain illegal drugs for personal use.
On this page
- The exemption explained
- The exemption in full
- This exemption is not legalization
- Federal response to the overdose crisis
The exemption explained
The federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health granted the province of British Columbia (BC)'s request for a subsection 56(1) exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act for adults (18 years of age and older) in the province to possess small amounts of certain illegal drugs for personal use. BC has referred to this as "decriminalization of personal possession of illegal drugs".
What this means is that from January 31, 2023 to January 31, 2026, adults (18 and over) in BC will not be subject to criminal charges for the possession of a cumulative total of up to 2.5 grams of certain illegal drugs for personal use. Instead, all individuals found in possession of substances listed in the exemption of up to 2.5 grams for personal use will, at minimum, be provided with information on available local health and social services. They can also be provided with assistance to connect with those services if requested. The exemption only covers possession for personal use by adults (18 and over) in BC with no intent to traffic, produce or export.
British Columbia has been greatly impacted by overdose deaths and related harms, and declared the overdose crisis a public health emergency in 2016. As part of the province's comprehensive public health response, BC requested a subsection 56(1) exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) so that adults in the province will not be subject to criminal charges for personal possession of small amounts of certain illegal drugs.
Based on key information provided by BC through its request, including but not limited to, results of its consultations, readiness and capacity of its health and social system and of its law enforcement, the federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health granted this exemption to support the public health response to the overdose crisis in BC. Comprehensive monitoring and evaluation from the federal government will help to inform whether the exemption is contributing to the comprehensive approach to reduce stigma and harms related to substance use and increase access to health and social services for people who use drugs.
Substance use is a public health issue that is shaped by complex factors, many of which can be beyond an individual's control. As mental health and substance use among Canadians have worsened throughout the pandemic, it is clear that solutions to the overdose crisis must consider broader health and social issues.
This exemption applies to all adults 18 years of age and older in BC. Youth under the age of 18 are not covered by this exemption. Youth aged 12 to 17 are still subject to the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
This exemption applies in British Columbia. In all other Canadian provinces and territories, the existing laws regarding illegal drugs still apply.
The exemption will not apply in the following locations:
- elementary and secondary school premises (Kindergarten to Grade 12)
- premises of licensed child care facilities
- on Canadian Coast Guard vessels and helicopters
This means that anyone possessing any amount of any illegal drugs in these locations could be charged with a criminal offence.
In addition, there are special restrictions that apply to personal motor vehicles, watercraft and public transit.
This exemption does not change Canada's border rules. Taking illegal drugs across the Canadian border – either exiting or entering – remains illegal even if travelling to and from BC, where an exemption will be in place. It can result in serious criminal penalties both in Canada and abroad.
The exemption will come into effect on January 31, 2023 until January 31, 2026. Until then, current laws apply in BC. Possession of the illegal drugs identified in the exemption for personal use, unless authorized, remains a criminal offence until the exemption comes into effect.
Until January 31, 2023, the province of BC will prepare for the exemption's implementation, including training of local law enforcement and an education and awareness campaign in the province.
Which illegal drugs and how much
Under the exemption, adults aged 18 years and older in BC will not be arrested or charged for the possession of four types of illegal drugs for personal use:
- Opioids (including heroin, morphine, and fentanyl. See the exemption for the full list)
- Cocaine (including crack and powder cocaine)
- Methamphetamine (Meth)
- MDMA (Ecstasy)
Adults (18 and over) in BC will not be arrested or charged for the personal possession of any combination of these illegal drugs that adds up to a combined total of 2.5 grams. Possession above this amount remains illegal and could be subject to criminal charges.
Adults (18 and over) are not allowed to possess:
- more than 2.5 grams of these illegal drugs
- any amount of other illegal drugs not included in the exemption
Evidence on effective and safe threshold amounts of these drugs is limited. As this is the first exemption of its kind in Canada, ongoing monitoring from the federal government will inform whether it is contributing to its objectives which includes reducing stigma and harms related to substance use and increasing access to health and social services for people who use drugs in BC.
What remains criminal under this exemption
Unless otherwise authorized, any quantity of the illegal drugs listed in the exemption, in any amount (including 2.5 grams and less), cannot be:
- imported or exported
- taken across a domestic or international border, even if for personal use
- in your possession for purposes other than personal use
- trafficked, including:
- given away
- supplied to anyone
- sent or delivered
It remains a criminal offence for Canadian Armed Forces members subject to the Code of Service Discipline to possess the drugs listed in the exemption, unless otherwise authorized.
Motor vehicle and watercraft activities
Possession of any illegal drugs, including those listed in the exemption, remains illegal:
- in a motor vehicle or watercraft that is operated by a minor (under 18 year of age), whether or not it is in motion
The exemption also specifies conditions on safe storage of the illegal drugs listed in the exemption:
- in personal motor vehicles and on public transit; these drugs cannot be readily accessible to the driver.
- on watercrafts, these drugs cannot be readily accessible to the operator.
How was this decision made
The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) is one of the federal drug control statutes. It has a dual purpose to protect public health and maintain public safety. Part of the CDSA provides authority to grant exemptions from any or all of the provisions of the CDSA, if, in the opinion of the Minister, the exemption is necessary for a medical or scientific purposes or is otherwise in the public interest.
Each request received is considered on a case-by-case basis, based on the dual public health and public safety objectives of the CDSA.
Factors that the Minister considered in assessing this request from BC included:
- Scope of the exemption, including definition of personal possession and possession by minors
- Consultations with key populations, including indigenous communities, people who use drugs, partners, law enforcement and stakeholders
- Measures to redirect people who use drugs away from the criminal justice system and towards health and social services
- Readiness and capacity of health and social systems
- Public education and communications plan
- Law enforcement readiness, including the development of training and guidelines
- Operational considerations, such as how key risks will be mitigated
- Monitoring and evaluation plan, including a focus on the impact on populations at increased risks of substance use harms
Successful implementation of the exemption will require that BC follow through on the actions outlined in its request. The federal Minister of Mental Health and Addictions and Associate Minister of Health has sent a Letter of Requirements to BC's Minister of Mental Health and Addictions outlining these necessary actions, including:
- improving access to health services
- providing law enforcement training and guidance
- undertaking meaningful engagement with Indigenous peoples
- undertaking continued consultation with people who use drugs, law enforcement, racialized communities and other key stakeholders
- leading effective public awareness and communications
- conducting comprehensive monitoring and evaluation
Health Canada will be monitoring closely the implementation of this exemption and the adherence to the Letter of Requirements.
This exemption is not legalization
This exemption means that adults (18 years of age and older) in BC will not be subject to criminal charges for the possession of some illegal drugs. It is an exemption that applies in the specific jurisdiction of BC and is time-limited.
In this case, adults (18 years of age and older) in BC who possess the illegal drugs listed in the exemption, in an amount up to 2.5 grams for personal use will not be subject to criminal charges and the drugs will not be seized. Instead, law enforcement will provide information on local health and social services and voluntary referrals to those services. The exemption only covers possession for personal use by adults (18 and over) in BC with no intent to traffic, produce or export.
Federal response to the overdose crisis
The Government of Canada continues to take a comprehensive approach to addressing substance use and the overdose crisis, this includes continuing to support critical harm reduction, treatment, housing and other services for people who use drugs or who are in recovery. Since the onset of the crisis, the Government of Canada has responded quickly to implement a wide range of measures to help save lives and meet the needs of people who use drugs.
This is one additional tool that the federal government is providing to BC to help them address substance use harms and overdose in its jurisdiction. Ultimately, the goal is to end this crisis.
- Fact sheet on the Exemption
- Exemptions under the CDSA
- Responding to Canada's opioid crisis
- Helping people who use substances during the COVID-19 pandemic
- Canadian drugs and substances strategy
- Safer supply