Mr. Speaker, a lethal dose can vary from person to person. The composition and purity of the illegal drug supply varies, including strong opioids such as fentanyl. In particular, the illegal drug supply remains contaminated by potent drugs like fentanyl and its analogues and has the potential to pose harm to people who use drugs. Health Canada recognizes that fentanyl is a dangerous drug due to its potency and risk of overdose, in particular if used in ways that increase risk of harm, such as using alone or mixed with other substances. For this reason, fentanyl and its analogues are controlled under Schedule I of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Activities with fentanyl such as possession and production are illegal, unless authorized through the Act’s regulations or an exemption under the Act.
With regard to 100% pure fentanyl, not to the illegal drug supply, the lethal dose of fentanyl has never been determined in humans. From a precautionary approach, it is generally considered that fentanyl has the potential to be lethal at doses over 2 milligrams.
Substance use and its harms are shaped by several complex factors. A number of factors contribute to overdose fatalities, including mixing substances, as when taking opioids with alcohol or sedatives; method of use; level of tolerance, as someone with a higher tolerance may use more of a drug than someone else; unknown purity or potency as a result of contaminants in the illegal drug supply; or other health conditions, such as liver or kidney disease or breathing problems. Anyone who uses illegal drugs, including fentanyl, should continue to engage in harm reduction measures to reduce the risk of overdose and death.
In response to a request from the Province of British Columbia, from January 31, 2023, to January 31, 2026, adults 18 and over in B.C. will not be subject to criminal charges for the possession of up to 2.5 grams of certain illegal drugs for personal use. More information on the exemption can be found at the Health Canada website.
In assessing this exemption request, the dual objectives of the CDSA—to protect public health and maintain public safety—were considered. The inclusion of fentanyl in this exemption and the associated threshold should not be misconstrued as a statement on its safety. Anyone who uses illegal drugs, including fentanyl, should continue to engage in harm reduction measures to reduce the risk of overdose and death.
With respect to B.C.’s exemption, it is important to note that the amount of the listed illegal drugs that a person may possess does not necessarily equate to the amount they will use at one time. Someone who uses drugs may be in possession of more than they plan to use at one time for a number of reasons, such as limited local availability of drugs for purchase; transportation/geographic considerations, such as living in rural or remote locations; or buying in bulk to reduce interaction with the illegal market.
This exemption only relates to possession for personal use. Trafficking, as well as unauthorized possession for the purposes of trafficking, remain illegal regardless of the amount of controlled substances involved. Further, it is also important to note that law enforcement can still arrest and seize drugs at any amount, even under the 2.5-gram threshold, for other offences, such as trafficking. Above the threshold, law enforcement will continue to use their discretion to determine intent, and prosecutors will need to consider the Public Prosecution Service of Canada’s guidance on possession charges.
Several sources of data were carefully considered with respect to the threshold in B.C.’s exemption, including purchasing and use patterns, public health data and law enforcement data such as drug seizures.
As this is the first exemption of its kind in Canada, its implementation will be rigorously monitored to measure progress toward established objectives and intended outcomes, and to identify unintended consequences and other potential risks. Ongoing evaluation will take place throughout the duration of the exemption, including independent, peer-reviewed, third party evaluation.
This exemption is one additional tool to support B.C.’s comprehensive response to this public health crisis. The Government of Canada’s approach to addressing the overdose crisis also aims to reduce stigma and harm associated with substance use and reduce the trafficking of illegal drugs. This includes increasing access to pharmaceutical-grade alternatives to the toxic drug supply to provide a safer supply, border enforcement of precursor chemical imports, investing in a robust system of care that includes mental health, and monitoring and evaluating efforts to inform an evidence base and identify best practices.