Vancouver Mayor Stewart announces plan to decriminalize simple possession of drugs

WITH overdose deaths still at critical levels, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart on Wednesday unveiled a new plan to fully embrace a health-focussed approach to substance use in the City by decriminalizing simple possession of all drugs through a federal health exemption.

“Personal possession and use of drugs is not a criminal justice issue, it is a health issue,” said Stewart. “It is time to end the stigma around substance use, help connect more of our neighbours to health care, and save lives.”

With more than 1,500 deaths in Vancouver since a Provincial Overdose Emergency was declared in April 2016, and an estimated 328 overdose deaths in the City this year to date, 2020 is on track to be the worst year yet for overdoses and Stewart is calling for a new approach.

“My plan would see Vancouver lead the way as the first Canadian jurisdiction to decriminalize personal possession of illicit substances,” said Stewart, “Decriminalization is an urgent and necessary next step backed by Premier John Horgan, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Vancouver Coastal Health’s (VCH) Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Patricia Daly.”

Daly stressed that by reducing stigma, decriminalization can help to engage vulnerable people into a system of care. “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,” said Daly. “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.”

If passed by Council, the Mayor’s motion would direct the City of Vancouver to write to the federal ministers of Health, Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, and Justice and Attorney General to request a federal exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to decriminalize personal possession of illicit substances within the City’s boundaries for medical purposes, in order to address urgent public health concerns caused by the overdose crisis and COVID-19.

Supporters of decriminalization also include PIVOT Legal Society, Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, and Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

Sarah Blyth, Executive Director of Overdose Prevention Society and member of Vancouver’s Community Action Team (CAT), said: “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%.”

Donald MacPherson, Executive Director of Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, said: “At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is overwhelming us it is heartening to see Vancouver taking strong leadership on one of the biggest barriers to ending the devastating overdose crisis, the criminalization of people who use drugs. The many harms caused by the criminalization of simple possession of drugs have been well documented in the scientific literature. This action will accelerate movement towards a health and human rights approach to drugs in Canada and facilitate the development of a more comprehensive response to the drug toxicity crisis that is taking the lives of so many in British Columbia.”

Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer said: “For many years, the VPD has treated substance use and addiction as a public health issue, not as an issue requiring intervention by the criminal justice system. As such, we support decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal consumption and the creation of additional healthcare and community support structures to ensure people get the help they need. The solution is not a simple, singular approach – healthcare, government, and police need to work together to come up with comprehensive health-focused systems and wrap-around support.”

Caitlin Shane, PIVOT Legal Society, said: “This action will save lives. It’s not a silver bullet—but it’s a critical step toward ending a war that is needlessly killing our communities. Decriminalization is a moral imperative and we encourage other cities and the Province of BC to follow Vancouver’s lead.”