Students advocating for drug decriminalization host online community panel

Advocacy groups discussed the need for ongoing drug policy reforms in the province

Caitlin Shane from PIVOT (left), and Vince Tao from VANDU (right).

Caitlin Shane from Pivot Legal Society (left), and Vince Tao from VANDU (right).

On Jan. 26, the Law Students for Decriminalization & Harm Reduction and the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP) Vancouver chapter co-hosted an online panel to discuss the need for ongoing drug policy reforms in British Columbia.

The panel featured representatives from a variety of organizations, including the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), Pivot Legal Society, the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society (WAHRS), and the Drug User Liberation Front (DULF), all of whom are involved in the advocacy of drug-users rights and needs.

The discussion raised questions around the meaning of drug decriminalization, the role that stigma plays, experiences made with handouts, compassion clubs, and providing advice for communities struggling with addiction. 

Vince Tao, a community organizer with VANDU, currently serves on the steering committee for the Vancouver Tenants Union and says it’s a complicated issue and “decriminalization is not exactly what it sounds like.”

“When the city announced it would decriminalize small possession of drugs in November 2020, VANDU and Pivot Legal Society sent a message saying, ‘We applaud the city’s moves towards decriminalization, but we recommended full decriminalization.’ Meaning no threshold as to how much small possession should be … that’s not exactly what they went with,” Tao says. 

The City of Vancouver’s threshold levels in its request for an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act from May 28 include two grams for opioids such as heroin and fentanyl and three grams for cocaine. 

Caitlin Shane, a staff lawyer with Pivot Legal Society who is currently leading their drug policy campaign, says the city didn’t listen to the requests from people who use drugs. 

“That’s not to say that they didn’t have opportunity to, they just ignored people who use drugs when they were very clear about what they wanted and needed out of this model,” Shane says. 

“For any kind of liberation movement to be successful, you need to work out empowering the most disempowered subset … and that’s where you really start to build a powerful movement, when you take care of those who need it the most,” says Jeremy Kalicum, a public health student, activist, and organizer with DULF. 

According to the CDSA, the minister of health can approve exemptions for any person or class of persons or any controlled substance if, in their opinion, the “exemption is necessary for a medical or scientific purpose, or is otherwise in the public interest.”

On Nov. 1, the provincial government announced it had also applied for a federal exemption from the CDSA with a “cumulative binding threshold quantity at 4.5g” for opioid, cocaine and methamphetamine possession. 

The amount is based on self-reported data from past studies as well as survey results from early 2021 conducted in partnership with VANDU “to generate additional information regarding daily use and purchasing patterns.”

Law enforcement and health officials were consulted on the threshold levels as well. 

Data from a report published by the BC Coroners Service on Dec. 9 shows 2021 to have the highest number of “suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths … ever recorded in a calendar year” in B.C., with 1,782 people recorded to have died between January and October of 2021. At 201 deaths, October had the largest number of deaths ever recorded in a month.

Last year, 71 per cent of those who died were between the ages of 30 and 59, and 79 per cent were male. 

“There’s so much trauma that happens, and a lot of addiction stems from trauma, from when you’re really really young, and the only way to cope half the time is to use or drink, and it’s really sad to hear,” says Delilah Gregg, vice-president of WAHRS, and board of directors members with VANDU. 

“I believe that people who stigmatize substance use must stop and accept people as they are.”