Vancouver could become the first Canadian city to decriminalize the possession of illicit drugs in an effort to prevent increasing numbers of overdose deaths.
Mayor Kennedy Stewart wants city council to approve a motion to decriminalize drug use and move the city away from stigmatizing and harming people who use substances.
“It’s time we embraced a health-focused approach to substance use,” Stewart said today.
Since the provincial overdose crisis was declared a public health emergency in April 2016, more than 1,500 people in Vancouver have died, with 328 deaths so far this year.
“2020 is on track to be the worst year yet for overdose deaths, and it’s clear we need to do more,” said the mayor.
If supported, the motion would direct city staff to write to the federal ministers of health, public safety and justice as well as the attorney general, and request an exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act within city limits.
Section 56 of the act grants the minister of health the power to issue an exemption to any part of the legislation “if, in the opinion of the Minister, the exemption is necessary for a medical or scientific purpose or is otherwise in the public interest.”
It is the same mechanism the city used to establish North America’s first supervised injection site, Insite, in 2003, and more recently to allow health-care providers to prescribe alternatives to street drugs as a part of safer supply measures.
But the motion is far from approved despite concern shared by all city councillors about the harms of the overdose crisis. After a heated debate and public hearing over last month, a new overdose prevention site downtown was approved by a 7-to-4 margin with all four NPA councillors voting against.
Expansions to safer drug supply programs, delayed by the election, are expected from the province soon.
But Stewart and Vancouver Coastal Health chief medical officer Dr. Patricia Daly said the city needs multiple strategies to reduce stigma and prevent deaths.
“It’s an important step and it reminds us of the need to address this ongoing public health emergency,” said Daly.
Decriminalization means the removal of criminal penalties for possession of personal amounts of street drugs. Manufacturing and distributing drugs would remain illegal.
Support for decriminalization has grown as the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the ongoing overdose crisis in B.C. and led to an increasingly toxic street supply of drugs.
Its backers include provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and her predecessor Dr. Perry Kendall, who is now co-directing the BC Centre on Substance Use, their counterparts in the city of Toronto, Premier John Horgan and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.
“Vancouver has always been at the forefront of drug policy,” said Stewart. “And now we can again lead, this time on decriminalization.”
Oregon recently approved a plan to decriminalize simple possession in the state, but the plan included possible fines and measures to coerce drug users into treatment.
Stewart and Daly said they don’t want to see such measures in Vancouver’s model.
“For me a lot of that is a little too restrictive and I think we can learn from those lessons,” said Daly. “Our preference is always voluntary treatment.”
Guy Felicella, a peer advisor with the BC Centre on Substance Use, hopes a Vancouver pilot could pave the way for decriminalization across the province.
“Who knows, maybe we get the province on board and they start doing it in other communities,” he said.
The details of Vancouver’s plan would be worked out in concert with the Vancouver Coastal Health authority, people with lived experience and the Vancouver Police Department once approved, Stewart said.
While the VPD says it already does not arrest people for simple possession, records show that seizures of small quantities continue in large numbers. Drug users and advocacy organizations also say police continue to “harass, bully and target our communities.”
The force has also been resistant to recent pushes from council to reduce its budget, end street checks and decriminalize poverty.
Stewart expects all small drug seizures to end with decriminalization, since “there would be no real authority for that seizure to happen.”
“[VPD] Chief Adam Palmer is a national leader on this issue,” said Stewart, noting that officers would need to be trained on the new system. “We are, I think, in very good shape to roll this out quickly and effectively if it is approved by the feds.”
The motion was tabled Tuesday and is expected to be considered by council within the week.
Stewart said he’s optimistic that federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu will grant the exemption, calling her a “champion” of harm reduction.
“I’m hoping for good news this year, but I could see it going into the spring,” said Stewart. “Ideally within a matter of months we’d like to have this implemented.”