Mayor Kennedy Stewart has proposed a new plan to decriminalize personal possession of drugs in Vancouver.
Stewart announced his intent Wednesday to table a motion to city council next week that would shield residents from criminal liability due to simple drug possession. If passed, the mayor’s motion would direct the city to seek an exemption from federal drug laws, in order to address urgent public health concerns caused by the overdose crisis and COVID-19.
Section 56 of the the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act permits the health minister to grant exemptions for “any person or class of persons” if it’s deemed necessary for a medical or scientific purpose or otherwise in the public interest. In the past, this exemption has been used to pave the way for supervised consumption sites in Vancouver, and allow pharmacists to prescribe controlled substances amid the pandemic.
“Personal possession and use of drugs is not a criminal justice issue,” Stewart said. “It’s a health issue.”
This action is long overdue, Stewart said, citing the more than 1,500 overdose deaths in Vancouver since a provincial health emergency was declared in April 2016.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the crisis, interrupting the usual supply of illicit substances and creating a dangerously contaminated, toxic drug supply. This year is on track to be the worst one yet for overdose deaths, with over 300 in Vancouver this year alone.
Stewart is now heeding calls for an approach already seen elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest. The November election saw Oregon become the first U.S. state to decriminalize simple drug possession.
“My plan would see Vancouver lead the way as the first Canadian jurisdiction to decriminalize personal possession of illicit substances,” said Stewart in a news release, citing support from Premier John Horgan, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Vancouver Coastal Health chief medical officer Dr. Patricia Daly.
Daly stressed that decriminalization can help to engage vulnerable people by reducing the stigma around drug use.
“In the 2018 VCH Chief Medical Health Officer’s Report, I recommended decriminalization of personal possession of substances as part of the overall strategy — including prevention, harm reduction and improvements to the addictions system of care — to address the overdose crisis,” she said. “I support this motion, and should it be approved by council, my office will work with the City of Vancouver and Vancouver Police Department on next steps.”
Decriminalization is also supported by civil society groups such as the PIVOT Legal Society, Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.
“Mayor Stewart’s motion reflects what the community is asking for in order to help end the overdose crisis and save lives. The Overdose Prevention Society supports this motion 100 per cent,” said Sarah Blyth, executive director of the society.
Caitlin Shane of the PIVOT Legal Society argued this action would save lives.
“It’s not a silver bullet — but it’s a critical step toward ending a war that is needlessly killing our communities,” she said. “Decriminalization is a moral imperative and we encourage other cities and the province of B.C. to follow Vancouver’s lead.”
In a news release, VPD Police Chief Adam Palmer said that his department has long treated substance and addiction as a public health issue. “As such, we support decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal consumption and the creation of additional health-care and community support structures to ensure people get the help they need,” he said.
Decriminalization of illicit drugs isn’t the same as legalization. Manufacturing and trafficking these substances would remain illegal.
Stewart’s motion will go before council on Tuesday.