Toronto, Regina, and Halifax, are among the Canadian cities willing to discuss decriminalizing drugs, according to a survey of mayors conducted by VICE World News in the wake of Vancouver’s recent decision to pursue decriminalization for the city.
However, the majority of mayors contacted as part of the survey gave tepid responses, or no response at all, when asked if they supported the idea of decriminalization as a response to the worsening overdose crisis.
Last month, Vancouver’s city council unanimously passed a motion tabled by Mayor Kennedy Stewart to formally ask the federal government to grant a special exemption to drug laws that would allow Vancouver to decriminalize personal illicit drug possession. The city is working with Vancouver Coastal Health Authority on the endeavour, and sent its exemption request to the federal ministers of health, justice, and public safety in a letter last week.
VICE World News reached out to 30 Canadian mayors, including 16 in British Columbia, to see whether they would follow Vancouver’s lead in asking the federal government for a decriminalization exemption and whether they supported the idea at all as a public health measure. The response further shows Vancouver’s uniqueness in its pursuit of decriminalization, and that any broader pushes for decriminalization will likely need to come from provincial and federal leaders rather than municipal ones.
It’s unclear how long the federal government will take to respond to Vancouver’s exemption request, but Health Minister Patty Hajdu said previously she will review it and “continue our work to get Canadians who use substances the support they need.”
Vancouver Mayor Stewart told VICE World News in a statement that harm reduction and decriminalization are likely new topics “with a lot of uncertainty” for many cities. However, the overdose crisis isn’t unique to Vancouver. “Poison drugs may not be a big issue yet in your community, but it’s coming,” Stewart said.
“And if you’re not ready yet, that’s OK. We’ll do this, we’ll do it right and save lives and hopefully then other jurisdictions can follow our lead.”
While drug laws in Canada are under federal jurisdiction, individuals and organizations can request exemptions to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, known as section 56 exemptions, if they can prove it’s required in the name of science, medicine, or the public interest.
Vancouver’s motion also states the mayor will “write to all other B.C. local governments urging them to consider” doing the same, and also write to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities “seeking their support for decriminalizing personal possession of illicit substances.”
One B.C. mayor said he fully supports the idea of decriminalization, but has no immediate plans to apply for an exemption, while eight mayors said they were either open to the idea or wanted to speak with Mayor Stewart about it and keep an eye on how things unfold in Vancouver. Seven said they either did not support decriminalization or had no plans to pursue it at this time, 10 mayors had no comment, and four did not respond.
Within days of the Vancouver decision, the mayor and city council of Kamloops, B.C., said they support the idea of decriminalization, but aren’t ready to formally pursue it themselves.
“I have been calling for decriminalized rules for personal possession for the past year and also for a regulated safe supply. We [are] on track to have our worst year yet in the opioid public health crisis here in Kamloops,” Mayor Ken Christian told VICE World News in an email.
“It is tragic. It is unacceptable. The person years of life lost is huge and it has to stop.”
When asked by VICE World News if all this meant he would pursue a federal decriminalization exemption, Christian replied "not at this point."
Sandra Masters, the recently elected mayor of Regina, Saskatchewan, was one of the only mayors outside of British Columbia who was particularly enthusiastic about Vancouver’s efforts.
Masters told VICE World News she is considering decriminalization as an option for her city, which is having one of the worst years for opioid overdoses on record.
“What we're doing clearly isn't working,” Masters said in a phone interview. “I would be open to having a discussion with other city mayors as it relates to the issues, absolutely. If the evidence supports it, which I believe it does, then absolutely.”
Masters, who ran on an anti-poverty platform, said she felt “hopeful” after Vancouver announced its plans to pursue federal approval for its plan “because the coastal Health Authority was involved in it,” something she said creates a model that other jurisdictions could look to.
“So it’s not just the politicians, so to speak, but it's the actual professionals hopping on board,” Masters said. “They [the medical experts] have spent the time to gather the data, to find the science, and to build that coalition because that's, to me, where the magic is going to happen.”
Masters said she would also be interested in speaking with Vancouver’s Mayor Stewart about decriminalization, adding that she will be consulting with local health and law enforcement officials in Regina before anything proceeds.
“That discussion would be welcome,” she said. “We have to do something.”
Other mayors who were also open to discussing decriminalization include those from Toronto, Halifax.
“Discussions around decriminalizing illicit drugs are ongoing at both the City, provincial and federal level. The mayor is anxious to have further discussions on this issue, and is willing to discuss any options that are introduced by medical health professionals that will help save lives,” a spokesperson for Toronto Mayor John Tory told VICE World News in an email.
A spokesperson for Halifax Mayor Mike Savage wrote that while the mayor has no “immediate intention to follow Vancouver,” he “does agree that a harm reduction approach to personal possession is desirable” and would “welcome discussion” with other mayors and members of his city council.
Winnipeg, Manitoba’s mayor Brian Bowman was among those who said they weren’t considering decriminalization in part because it’s “a decision for the provincial and federal governments.” Winnipeg’s illicit drug supply chain has been rocked by the pandemic, as is the case in most cities, and overdoses have been soaring as a result.
“While the mayor plans to speak with the mayor of Vancouver at some point to learn more about the thought process behind their decision, this isn’t something the mayor is actively considering,” Mayor Bowman’s spokesperson told VICE World News. “The mayor’s focus has been to advocate for those who need supports for mental health and addictions in our community. Decriminalization is ultimately a decision for the provincial and federal governments."
Montreal had a similar response, with Mayor Valérie Plante’s office saying decriminalization falls under federal domain, but, “[s]hould the situation amplify, we will assess the actions to be taken under our responsibility.” Like Winnipeg, Montreal has seen a spike in overdoses in recent months with the street supply chain shifting towards potent fentanyl.
Other mayors eschewed the idea altogether.
“Each municipality and local police force is able to make decisions based on the circumstances within their own unique communities. Windsor’s proximity to the border–just meters from Detroit, Michigan–we face trafficking challenges that other cities do not,” wrote Windsor, Ontario’s Mayor Drew Dilkens.
“I am not prepared to recommend an action plan similar to Vancouver’s, however we will certainly be monitoring their outcomes in the years’ ahead.”
A spokesperson for Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said he “isn’t pursuing similar exemptions in Calgary, but we are watching the situation in Vancouver. We are currently undertaking a broad community strategy on mental health and addictions which will inform our approach going forward.”
While some other mayors of cities in British Columbia, the hardest hit province for overdoses, discussed the rising overdose rates in their respective places, none explicitly supported decriminalization, while others wouldn’t comment on it at all.
“Mayor Helps is unavailable and we will decline the opportunity to comment at this time,” Victoria Mayor Lisa Help’s spokesperson wrote.
“No plans at this time,” said Terrace’s mayor in an email within 20 minutes of receiving the request. The northwest city of around 12,000 people, too, has seen a dramatic rise in overdose calls.
"The mayor will not be commenting,” wrote Nelson’s mayor’s spokesperson.
The mayor of Nanaimo, Leonard Krog, acknowledged that the overdose and addiction situation in his city of around 90,000 has been getting worse, but said there were “certainly no plans at the present time” to apply for a decriminalization exemption.
However, he would consider supporting decriminalization if it happened at a provincial or federal level, but still has reservations. “It needs to be done in conjunction with all of the facilities and supports we need to deal with substance abuse. All the preventive programs and everything else,” Krog told VICE World News in a phone call.
“In and of itself, it won't really advance, I believe, the situation in terms of improving the lives of many people.”
When it comes to the idea of safe supply programs, Krog said that, ideally, the end result would be “no one who has an addiction issue is going to be out buying them from an illicit source.”
But he said he doesn’t support the normalization of recreational drug use.
“If you're asking me whether I support the right of people to snort cocaine and wander around the streets and have fun and use it as a recreational pleasure and place the lives and safety of others at risk, no I can't say that I'm supportive of that,” he said.
“I certainly don't want to live in a society that, you know, frankly finds it socially acceptable that somebody comes over and snorts cocaine off my dining room table with the same ease that they would eat a dessert."
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