Vancouver city council unimously voted on Wednesday to proceed with a plan to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of all illicit drugs—from heroin to meth—as a way to help curb the province’s worsening overdose crisis that has been exacerbated by the pandemic and an increasingly toxic street supply.
Pending approval from the federal government, the city would become the first in Canada to decriminalize illicit substances, and comes shortly after Oregon became the first U.S. state to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of all drugs.
“Vancouver has once again decided to lead the way on drug policy in order to save lives.” Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who brought forward the decriminalization motion, said in a statement after the vote.
“If approved by the federal government, we will begin a robust process to determine how decriminalization will be implemented in Vancouver.”
At least 1,536 people in Vancouver, and more than 5,000 people in British Columbia, have died of an overdose since the province declared a public health emergency over the crisis in 2016. The number of fatal overdoses in B.C., and across the country, has continued to soar throughout 2020, putting this year on track to be one of the worst years on record for overdoses.
There are still a number of steps Vancouver will need to take in order to bring about decriminalization. Next, the mayor will submit a formal request to the federal ministers of health and justice for a special exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to make the decriminalization plan official. It can take months for such exemptions to be approved.
Mayor Stewart will also write to every other municipal government in B.C. urging them to pursue their own federal exemptions to decriminalize personal drug possession.
Drug policy and addictions experts have long called for decriminalization as a crucial measure to help reduce the stigma around drug use and break down the barriers that prevent many people from accessing health services and treatment due to fear of criminal sanctions.
As with these types of bold policy moves, the details of Vancouver’s initiative will determine its success.
But advocates warn that the city should learn from other jurisdictions in Europe and the U.S. that have pursued their own forms of decriminalization to ensure success in Vancouver and that the harms associated with drug criminalization aren’t inadvertently replicated.
The Portuguese Model
It remains unclear whether Vancouver’s decriminalization approach will replace criminal sanctions with any administrative ones, such as a ticket or a payable fine, as is the case in Portugal, which decriminalized the use and simple possession of all drugs in 2001 in response to soaring rates of heroin addiction and HIV infection.
While Portugal’s experiment was successful in slashing overdose rates and connecting people with harm reduction and treatment, its decriminalization regime has faced some criticism over its rigidity and that fact that law enforcement officers still remain at the forefront.
People in Portugal who are found by police to be in possession of a 10-day supply or less of illicit drugs have their drugs confiscated, they might receive a warning, or they will be ordered to appear before a government-run Dissuasion Commission, made up of social, legal, and psychological experts. Most cases are dismissed, while others pay a fine, or people struggling with addictions are linked up with treatment options.
Caitlin Shane, a drug policy lawyer with Pivot Legal Society in Vancouver, told VICE News that while Portugal’s efforts are commendable, there are aspects that should not be replicated in Vancouver.
“We've heard very clearly from people who use drugs in Portugal that any type of interaction or interference as a result of possessing drugs preserves a lot of the same harms as criminalization itself, because people continue to fear police people continue to be targeted by police,” said Shane, whose group is calling on other Canadian municipalities to also apply for federal exemptions to decriminalize.
Pivot opposes any new administrative regime in Vancouver, instead urging for “full decriminalization,” which would completely eliminate all penalties and sanctions associated with simple possession.
“The ideal is that, very simply, police stand down,” Shane said.
That’s not to say people shouldn’t be given better access to more health and harm reduction services, housing, and other supports as part of decriminalization, she continued. “Those services should be made available, they should be scaled up. But they need to be accessible without using police or bylaw officers or the courts as a conduit or a gatekeeper.
In a press conference last week, Mayor Stewart said that some parts of Portugal’s approach were “too restrictive,” but did not elaborate.
Drug seizures and fines
Oregon made history earlier this month when it became the first state to decriminalize all illicit drugs. Similar to the Portuguese regime, people in Oregon caught with a small amount of drugs will be given the option to pay a $100 fine or be referred to optional treatment for addiction.
Also like in Portugal, the person’s drugs will be confiscated by police in Oregon as the substances themselves are not legalized.
Though the Vancouver Police Department says it already makes a concerted effort to avoid charging people with simple possession, people who live and use drugs in the Downtown Eastside report that police constantly seize their drugs anyway, something that advocates say perpetuates violence and overdoses—and needs to stop.
Sarah Blyth, the executive director of the Overdose Prevention Society in Vancouver who sits on the city’s opioid action team, told VICE News she hears stories all the time from people who have their drugs confiscated by the police in the name of preventing an overdose, but it’s counterproductive and dangerous.
“It doesn't prevent crime. It's not healthy. It doesn't treat people that need help with any dignity,” she said. “What's the point for a police officer to take away someone's drugs just so they go out and do survival sex work, break into somebody's car, steal somebody's bike, survival drug dealing?”
When it comes to possible monetary fines, Caitlin Shane from the Pivot Legal Society said there should not be any fines associated with possession, especially because those who are most likely to face them are the city’s most vulnerable who are the most visible to law enforcement because of their lack of housing.
“Those are the people that are going to get slapped with fines, and those are the people who can't pay the fines. It contributes to this cycle where if a person doesn't pay an administrative fine, that means that they can eventually have a warrant. It means that they're still in that cycle of fear,” Shane said.
And even if the person does pay, that could still have detrimental effects for low-income communities.
“They're just just getting by … And then they're having to pay something like $100. That could be a third of someone's income and that could mean not being able to put food on the table.”
British Columbia has robust harm reduction and overdose prevention services that are largely supported by public health officials and politicians alike. When it comes to safe injection sites, British Columbia is years ahead of Portugal, which only just opened its first mobile safe consumption site last year. And, unlike both Portugal and Oregon, B.C. provides access to prescription-grade opioids for people at risk of overdosing on the street supply.
However, the province’s drug treatment and detox system has, for years, been plagued by lengthy waitlists, a predominance of abstinence-based programs that don’t accept people on medication-assisted therapies and have zero-tolerance for relapses, and a lack of oversight.
Cheyenne Johnson, executive director of the BC Centre on Substance Use, told VICE News she hopes that Vancouver’s decriminalization efforts come with broader efforts to expand access to a wider range of treatment options for those who want it.
“I think a lot of people that understand the Portuguese model, or other decriminalization models, think that, at face value, it's just about the criminal justice side,” Johnson said. “But the treatment system is really a huge piece of the puzzle.”
Johnson said that while the city’s health system is efficient when it comes to quickly getting people access to things like methadone (often it’s same-day access), people have to wait longer for outpatient and in-patient treatment programs.
She added that decriminalization should come with greater funding to support these measures, and it’s a matter of the city and the province working out how to achieve that.
A spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions told VICE News in an email that the province is “aware that many people are waiting for substance use treatment beds,” but that health authorities do not report on wait times, nor the number of people who are on waitlists.
“In 2020, the B.C. government committed $13.5 million to add an estimated 50 to 70 new publicly funded treatment and recovery beds for adults, as well as $36 million to double the number of youth beds throughout the province,” the spokesperson wrote.
More decriminalization in the future
Shane, from Pivot, said she hopes other cities and provinces follow Vancouver’s lead in applying for their own exemptions to decriminalize drug possession — especially as the federal government has been so resistant to do so itself.
“The federal government has the power to issue a nationwide exemption, but they don’t seem to want to do that,” she said. “So, unfortunately, it does seem like the ball is in the courts of these individual jurisdictions to take the initiative.”
Last week, federal health minister Patty Hajdu released a statement in response to the Mayor’s decriminalization announcement saying that she will review his request “and will continue our work to get Canadians who use substances the support they need.” However, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly rebuffed calls from public health experts and even police to decriminalize.
Matt Sutton, a spokesperson for the Drug Policy Alliance based in New York, told VICE News that the efforts to bring about decriminalization in Vancouver and Oregon suggest the movement is invigorated and quickly gaining support across North America.
“As much as people have seen the success in Portugal, they'll start to see the success in Oregon and Vancouver, and really see that a public health approach to drugs makes the most sense,” Sutton said. “They will come to the realization that criminalizing people for drug use is completely ineffective and it's a waste of resources. It’s ruined lives, quite frankly.”
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