Explainer: Vancouver’s journey towards decriminalization

Vancouver could receive an exemption for personal use of illicit substances in Canada

Naloxone is a kit used to treat an opioid overdose. (file)

On April 14, 2016, the government of British Columbia became the first province to declare a public health emergency in response to a significant increase in the number of deaths resulting from the contamination of illicit substances in Canada.

Four years later, the City of Vancouver passed a motion to ask the federal government for an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to decriminalize the possession of illicit substances within the city.

This follows multiple calls made by regional health, law, and community officials to decriminalize controlled substances to focus recovery efforts on saving lives.

On April 24, 2019, B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, released a special report titled Stopping the Harm: Decriminalization of People Who Use Drugs in BC, as part of a public health campaign to address the crisis.

The report “provides evidence and information on how to “protect [users] from the highly-toxic street drug supply, and curtail the mounting number of preventable overdose deaths in B.C.,” said Henry.

On July 9, 2020, the president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and Vancouver Chief Const Adam Palmer, representing 1,300 federal, provincial and regional police forces across the country, said that “arresting individuals for simple possession of illicit drugs has proven to be ineffective” and that “being addicted to a controlled substance is not a crime and should not be treated as such.”

The CACP has since recommended that “Canada’s enforcement-based approach for possession be replaced with a health-care approach that diverts people from the criminal justice system,” a view shaped by a special committee created to explore the impacts decriminalization would have on policing and public safety.

Similar concerns have been echoed by non-profit organizations advocating for substance users’ rights. Moms Stop the Harm Founder Leslie McBain has asked, “why do we criminalize people who have a medical condition?”

Similar calls have come from the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, a non-profit organization built of a network of users attempting to improve the lives of people who use drugs through peer support and public education.

The preliminary submission to the federal government on March 1 follows decriminalization efforts, reaching as far as back as the 1960s.

In 1973, the federal commission of inquiry into the non-medical use of drugs under Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government wrote that “no one should be liable for imprisonment for simple possession of a psychotropic drug for non-medical purposes… [because] the harm caused…appears to be out of all proportion to any good it is likely to achieve in relation to the…drug use.”

The commission noted that treatment services, rather than criminal penalties, be provided to those living with opioid dependence and said they discouraged fear-based approaches to prevention.

Analysts said it was “one of the most politically-explosive documents ever put before the government,” and many of its recommendations were rejected.

In 2003 Vancouver Coastal Health, in partnership with the PHS Community Services Society, received an exemption to create Insite, North America’s first supervised safe consumption site.

Advocates hope that decriminalization in Vancouver can lead to a model for other cities to follow as well, especially after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he opposes decriminalization.

B.C. Minister of mental health and addictions Sheila Malcolmson formally requested a provincial exemption for the possession of small quantities of controlled substances on Feb. 3, following a request by B.C. Premier John Horgan on July 20, 2020, which has yet to receive approval.

The City is expected to provide a final submission to Health Canada in May this year.