Health Canada will officially begin discussing Vancouver’s request to decriminalize the simple possession of all illicit substances, the city’s mayor announced on Wednesday. If granted, Vancouver would become the first city in Canada where possessing small amounts of drugs won’t be a crime.
“This is another hopeful and critical milestone on the path towards fully embracing a health-focussed approach to substance use in the City of Vancouver,” Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said in a press release. More than 1,500 people died of drug toxicity deaths in B.C. during 2020.
“While 2020 looks to be the deadliest year on record for overdoses, I am hopeful that this news from Ottawa can mean that 2021 will be different.”
Vancouver’s city council voted unanimously last November to request a formal exemption from the federal government that would allow the city to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of all drugs—from meth to heroin—as one way to help reduce skyrocketing rates of overdose deaths due to the increasingly toxic street supply.
Such exemptions, known as section 56 exemptions to the Controlled Drugs and Substance Act, need to be approved by the federal health minister. Health Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment from VICE World News about when a decision on Vancouver’s exemption request is expected. Such requests can take weeks or months.
Calls for decriminalization have been growing in recent years, especially during 2020 when overdose deaths across Canada reached record highs amid the pandemic. Advocates have also been pressing for more resources for safer supply programs. Vancouver’s pursuit of decriminalization has also prompted a number of other Canadian cities, including Regina, to consider decriminalization as part of their responses to the overdose crisis.
A number of public health officials and police services also support decriminalization, and the federal prosecution service sent out new guidance to prosecutors last year instructing them to avoid simple drug possession and focus more on “serious cases” as well as “suitable alternative measures and diversion from the criminal justice system for simple possession cases.”
On Tuesday, Montreal’s city council passed a motion calling on the federal government to decriminalize the simple possession of illicit drugs nationally. That move was applauded by harm reduction groups who are urging Montreal to also follow Vancouver’s lead and apply for a formal decriminalization exemption.
However, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly said that he does not support decriminalization and that the focus should be on safer supply programs. Advocates say the two approaches must go hand in hand.
What exactly decriminalization would look like in Vancouver still needs to be determined and the city is in consultation with Vancouver Coastal Health, the Vancouver Police Department, and community groups. Questions remain around how much someone will be allowed to possess and what alternatives to criminalization will be available. Drug policy advocates and addiction experts say Vancouver should pursue “full decriminalization" that would exclude any administrative penalties, such as those that exist in Portugal.
“The ideal is that, very simply, police stand down,” Caitlin Shane, a drug policy lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, previously told VICE World News.
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