The Canadian province of British Columbia is embarking on a three-year experiment to see if decriminalizing possession of a small amount of certain drugs will stem the rising number of overdose deaths.

Officials there report that several people die each day from drug overdoses. According to the BBC, “The province asked for the criminal code exemption after overdoses claimed more than 2,000 lives in British Columbia last year.”

The theory is simple: People are not getting the medical help they need for fear of criminal prosecution, leading to overdose deaths.

According to The Associated Press, during the pilot project, the drugs won’t become legal. But an adult possessing up to 2.5 grams of illicit drugs for personal use won’t be arrested or charged within British Columbia. Instead, they’ll be made aware of health and social services that could help them kick their habit.

The BBC said there are some exemptions, including on primary and secondary school grounds, at child care facilities and at airports. The experiment doesn’t apply to members of Canada’s military. Possession of even a small amount of drugs in those situations and at those locations could still lead to arrest and charges.

The experiment begins on Jan. 31, 2023, and is slated to end Jan. 31, 2026. It will include opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and ecstasy. It does not apply to minors in possession of drugs.

“Stigma and fear of criminalization cause some people to hide their drug use, use alone or use in other ways that increase the risk of harm. This is why the government of Canada treats drug use as a health issue, not a criminal one,” Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, tweeted.

Canada also legalized recreational cannabis for adults nationwide in 2018.

Something new to curb drug deaths

Canada’s not the first country to take an innovative approach to the drug crisis. In 2020, Deseret News reported on an experiment with an opioid vending machine that would provide a clean source of drugs to help addicts stop using.

Vancouver was testing MySafe, a machine that looks like an ATM but matches addicts to their prescriptions using biometrics. When it recognizes the person, it dispenses a clean dose of hydromorphone. That’s an opioid known as Dilaudid that is enough to satisfy a user’s cravings and stave off withdrawals without posing the risks of the area’s badly tainted drug supply.

“Experts hope the MySafe pilot program will show whether making pharmacy-grade drugs accessible can, perhaps counterintuitive, reduce opioid addiction and its ripples,” the article said.

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“Dr. Brent Kious, an ethicist, psychiatrist and instructor at the University of Utah, said opioid-directed harm-reduction efforts are measured by outcomes not just for individuals but for society. It’s not just whether fewer addicts die, but also if they are less likely to buy and use illegal street drugs, if they avoid dirty needles that can spread HIV or hepatitis C and if they commit fewer crimes to support their habit,” according to the Deseret News.

The Associated Press reported that Portugal was the first country to decriminalize drugs, back in 2001. Anyone caught with less than a 10-day supply of any drug was typically directed to a local commission — made up of a doctor, lawyer and social worker — to learn about treatment and medical services.

In 2020, Oregon decriminalized hard drugs, making possession a violation, instead of a misdemeanor or felony. “It carries a maximum $100 fine, which can be waived if the person calls a hotline for a health assessment,” AP reported. “The call can lead to addiction counseling and other services.”

Reducing harm or enabling?

Harm reduction can be controversial. Critics lambast needle exchanges and safe injection sites as enabling illicit drug use. Others say that addicts will never achieve recovery and reclaim their lives if they don’t survive long enough to get treatment.

“I think the Canadians are working from the principle that the drug supply has become so tainted and is so dangerous for their citizens that they would rather start by keeping them alive and working from there,” Peter Davidson, an associate professor of medicine at the University of California San Diego, told the Deseret News in 2020. “They are coming at it from the view that this is a public health emergency and we have to solve the immediate crisis. Then we will work out what to do next.”