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BC’s Cops Weren’t Fully Prepared for Drug Decriminalization

Only two-thirds of officers had completed the first phase of training when the province’s pilot came into effect last year.

Michelle Gamage 4 Jan 2024The Tyee

Michelle Gamage is The Tyee’s health reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

When British Columbia’s drug decriminalization pilot project came into force earlier this year, only two-thirds of police officers had been trained in what that meant, The Tyee has learned.

This comes from a document accessed via a freedom of information request that laid out the meeting minutes of the province’s Mental Health Working Group back in January 2023.

As of Jan. 30, 2023, 66 per cent of all frontline officers had been given training on decriminalization, according to the FOI.

The pilot project, which made it legal for people 18 years and older to carry a combined total of 2.5 grams of opioids, crack, powder cocaine, meth, ecstasy or MDMA, kicked off the next day. The pilot will run until Jan. 31, 2026.

Eleven months later, there are still municipal and RCMP officers who have never been trained in what decriminalization is and what it means for police officers.

Prior to the pilot you could be arrested for possessing these drugs and, depending on the substance, amount and previous offences, could face fines or even jail time.

As of Dec. 1, 2023, 88 per cent of frontline police officers have completed the first phase of two parts of the decriminalization training, according to an emailed statement from the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General. The ministry did not provide numbers on how many officers had completed both phases of training.

In its statement the ministry said it has been working closely with police leadership to ensure officers have access to necessary training on decriminalization and “how to reposition substance use as a health issue.”

“The training for police ensures that they understand how decriminalization addresses stigma, their role in the successful implementation of decriminalization and the importance of a public health approach to substance use,” the statement continued.

The ministry said it “strongly recommends the training for all officers” but stopped short of saying if it is mandatory.

In September the province passed Bill 34, which amends the pilot project by prohibiting drug use or possession near doorways, bus stops and other public places like parks.

The Harm Reduction Nurses Association launched a civil claim against the province in early November in response, saying that the amendments would put the lives of people who use drugs in danger during the ongoing public health emergency by making people use alone and indoors, where there are fewer people available to help in the event of an overdose.

On Dec. 29, 2023, the B.C. Supreme Court granted a temporary injunction that will pause the implementation of the decriminalization amendments in Bill 34. This will give the court time to assess whether or not the update violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and whether the update is within B.C.’s constitutional jurisdiction.

Police have received an infographic about the new limitations in Bill 34 and the province has worked with police leadership to make sure officers are “comfortable” with the new limitations, the ministry added.

According to the documents received in the FOI, as of Jan. 30, 2023, the Metro Vancouver Transit Police had the most trained officers with a 96 per cent completion rate, followed by the Central Saanich Police Service and the Delta Police Department, each with an 87 per cent completion rate. At the same time the Nelson Police Department and the Stl’atl’imx Tribal Police had a zero per cent completion rate.

At that time the RCMP had a 64 per cent completion rate with the Island district in the lead with 72 per cent.

An updated breakdown of training completion rates was not provided to The Tyee.

How the pilot is working on the ground

Martin Steward, a Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users board member, said he thinks cops understand the 2.5-gram limit but not how the pilot was supposed to shift drug use towards the public health realm. The province created a “legal limit” rather than a decriminalization pilot, he said.

Steward said he’s witnessed Vancouver police officers stop people and ask how much they’re carrying. Officers carry scales, he said, and if your drugs weigh more than 2.5 grams they will be confiscated and you can be arrested.

Steward said his wife was recently stopped by police and had the 2.3 grams of drugs she was carrying confiscated because the cop read the scale “backwards” and said it was 3.2 grams.

“It’s about the size of a quarter. She gave it up even though it’s quite a bit of money,” he said.

Vancouver Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Steve Addison contested this and told The Tyee VPD officers have not been issued personal scales to weigh drugs. “Whenever illicit substances are seized and held by police, they are weighed prior to being secured in evidence lockers,” Addison said.

When The Tyee asked the Vancouver Police Department how many officers had been trained on decriminalization as of January 2023, and then in December 2023, Addison said that information would need to be accessed through a freedom of information request.

The 2.5-gram limit affects low-income people in different ways, Steward added.

If you’re living on welfare or disability, you’re going to try to buy in bulk once you get paid and then ration out your drugs to use only so much each day, Steward said. This saves people money and allows them to access the unregulated drug market less often.

Buying in bulk also allows people to buy for friends or family with limited mobility or who live in remote or rural areas of the province.

Downtown Eastside resident and community advocate Karen Ward contends that the province’s decriminalization pilot project isn’t really about decriminalization.

“Decriminalization requires divesting from police departments and reinvesting in social services like housing and helping people work through recovery programs,” Ward said. “We need to be offering vocational training and other opportunities to help people get back into the public realm and to rebuild community.” Ward clarified that the province needs to transition recovery programs away from the for-profit model.

The current decriminalization pilot project has instead had the effect of expanding police powers, Ward added, noting how police budgets are “ballooning” across the province but “we still don’t have a warming centre open on the Downtown Eastside.”

In 2022 the VPD’s net budget was $341.5 million, which rose to $373.5 million in 2023 and is predicted to grow to $415.9 million in 2024. Pivot Legal Society has pointed out that the budget has almost doubled over the last decade.

The criminalization of people who use drugs isn’t just about drug charges; it’s about having the police in your life all the time, Ward said. And the cops will be “in your face” the most if you are also struggling with poverty and living on the street, she added.

The most important thing the government could do today to save lives during the ongoing toxic drug crisis would be to make tested, regulated narcotics available to people who use drugs, Steward said. This could be through a compassion club, like the model that was recommended by the BC Coroners Service, or through a pharmacy, which is already set up to handle and distribute heavily regulated drugs, he said.  [Tyee]

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