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CMHA welcomes decriminalization of some illicit substances in BC, calls for more action

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) BC Division and National offices welcome the decision from the federal government to grant a request from the Province of British Columbia to provide an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that will, beginning January 31, 2023, decriminalize personal possession of small amounts of some controlled substances. The request was submitted to the federal government in November 2021 in response to deaths and profound harms associated with the toxic drug supply and the continued criminalization of people who use drugs.  

Canada is confronting an unprecedented and worsening public health crisis. The number of deaths and hospitalizations due to drug poisoning are staggering, with British Columbia being the hardest hit province.  

“CMHA BC recognizes the important decision taken this week to decriminalize simple possession of certain illicit substances,” says CMHA BC CEO Jonny Morris. “Given the devastating loss of life and injury related to drug poisonings in BC, decision-makers must not stop here, and should rigorously and quickly evaluate the need for higher thresholds, and the moral imperative to ensure greater access to safe supply.” 

The evidence is clear: criminalizing the use of illicit drugs has a number of stigmatizing effects on the people who use these substances, such that they may feel unsafe seeking life-saving interventions and treatment services. They may also fear arrest and harassment by police, judgment by healthcare professionals, loss of benefits, and child apprehension by the state, among other impacts. Criminalization further marginalizes people living in poverty and those experiencing racism, gender-based inequality, violence and other forms of oppression.1 Criminalization and the toxicity of the drug supply have contributed to the magnitude of the drug poisoning crisis, as have the significant barriers to mental health and addictions services. Mental health care and substance use treatments are underfunded compared to physical health care and are not covered comprehensively under provincial and territorial health plans, forcing many to pay out of pocket, or rendering them unaffordable for many Canadians.  

CMHA strongly supports a public health approach to tackling the drug poisoning crisis, one that is based in principles of harm reduction and treatment, and one that places problematic substance use squarely within the domain of health care. Governments at all levels must increase investments in services like employment, education, income security, affordable housing, childcare and peer and family supports. These and other critical social determinants of health promote health including mental health.2 Governments must further invest in community-based treatment that works in conjunction with primary care so that treatment is delivered in the most appropriate and least intensive ways. In order to support treatment and recovery, mental health services should be well integrated with addictions services and reflect a full continuum of care.  

“We commend the federal government for taking this important step, but it is only the first step towards nationwide decriminalization of simple drug possession, access to safer drug supply, safe consumption sites and free community-based substance use treatment and recovery supports,” says Margaret Eaton, CMHA National CEO. 

To read more about CMHA’s position and recommendations for responding to the opioid crisis, consult Care Not Corrections: Relieving the Opioid Crisis in Canada.  

1. Bernie Pauly, Paul Hasselback and Dan Reist, A Public Health Guide to Developing a Community Overdose Response Plan (Victoria, BC: University of Victoria, 2017), 4.
2. John Trainor, Ed Pomeroy and Bonnie Pape, A Framework for Support: Third Edition (Toronto: CMHA, 2004).


About the Canadian Mental Health Association 
Founded in 1918, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) is the most established, most extensive community mental health organization in Canada. Through a presence in more than 330 communities across every province and one territory, CMHA provides advocacy, programs and resources that help to prevent mental health problems and illnesses, support recovery and resilience, and enable all Canadians to flourish and thrive. For more information, please visit www.cmha.ca

For media inquiries: 

Deb Wise Harris 
National Manager, Communications 
Canadian Mental Health Association 
Phone: 514-327-2871 | [email protected]