Explainer: Vancouver’s bid to decriminalize small drug possessions

After passing a motion to city council awaits the federal government’s approval

(Kristen Frier)

On Nov. 25, the Vancouver city council approved a motion to decriminalize small possessions of illicit drugs.

This motion was agreed upon the same day 162 people were announced to have died from toxic drugs in October.

There have been more than 1,500 deaths in Vancouver since B.C. declared a public health emergency in 2016, according to Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, 329 of which occurred this year before Nov. 25. The Vancouver city council says the pandemic has also increased the “toxicity” in the drug supply, isolated drug users, and impacted their access to harm reduction services.

“2020 is on track to be the worst year yet for overdoses, and this new approach is urgently needed,” said Stewart.

However, the City of Vancouver will have to get approval from the federal government in order to be able to start the decriminalization process.

Back in July, B.C. Premier John Horgan sent a request to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking for the federal government to “decriminalize personal possession of all psychoactive substances, as a necessary next step to reduce the stigma associated with substance use and encourage people at risk to access lifesaving harm reduction and treatment services.”

In September, Trudeau said he wanted to focus on providing a safe drug supply as opposed to decriminalizing drugs, though with the rising cases of drug overdoses in B.C. and other provinces, decriminalization seems to be what many are leaning towards in order to reduce harm.

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police also want small possessions of drugs decriminalized. They believe that it’s an “effective way to reduce public health and public safety harms.”

A report by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction lists some ways the federal government can approach drug decriminalization. This includes a “supervised consumption site” where individuals can access a clean area and equipment. Vancouver currently has two consumption sites which provide safe injection services: Insite and the Dr. Peter Centre.

The sites will have staff members supervise the small amounts of substances to make sure the right amount is being taken.

This is the prescription maintenance program, where individuals can have “medically supervised access to controlled substances,” states the report. It also lists fines, warnings, and referrals to treatment as a different option for police officers when responding to a person using a controlled substance.

The report includes examples of policies that other countries have adopted, like Australia’s police diversion program, which is meant to educate and treat individuals while also discovering the root of substance use.

Health Minister Patty Hadju and Trudeau believe the best way to reduce overdose deaths is by improving access to a safe drug supply, as toxic drugs are one of the main reasons for the increase in overdose deaths, though in a statement, Hajdu said that the government “will review this request to address criminal penalties for simple possession of small amounts of controlled substances, and will continue our work to get Canadians who use substances the support they need.”

Horgan and B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, and Jane Philpott, the former federal health minister, support improving safe supply in addition to decriminalization.

Mayor Stewart says that a process to figure out how drug decriminalization could be implemented in Vancouver will begin right away if the federal government approves the council’s motion.