My homeless friend Henry couldn’t believe it Sunday evening (July 22nd), when two Vancouver police officers on bicycles swooped down and took a bag of weed from him that he had received only an hour previously from another homeless person.
It’s hard enough to imagine why Vancouver police would bother confiscating cannabis now that full legalization is just three months away (October 17th). It’s even harder to imagine why they would take it away from a homeless person.
The seizure took place sometime between 5 and 6 p.m. Sunday, in the alley on the south side of the 1400 block of West Broadway.
Henry has been nearly bedridden here in a doorway for over two weeks now, nursing what he believes is a torn muscle in his right shoulder. Whatever the cause, the result has been incapacitating and terrifically painful at times.
Henry’s one trip to Vancouver General Hospital two weeks ago earned him a scant two Tylenol-Codeine tablets—hardly enough to manage the pain of his shoulder. As a mutual friend put it: Henry is a sick man and cannabis is his medicine.
Early Sunday evening, Henry had been gifting some of his medicinal cannabis to another homeless friend and—just his luck—he still had the bag in plain sight when the bicycle police happened upon him.
“That’s a big bag,” Henry remembers the officers saying and then, “that’s too much.”
Two other homeless people witnessed the seizure. The one who had received some of Henry’s cannabis was every bit as angry and demonstrative as Henry himself and both of them loudly and repeatedly called out the officers for stealing from a homeless person.
Henry was too stunned and angry to get either of the bike officers’ names and he says that neither of them displayed a visible badge number. He described the most vocal of the two as “chubby, maybe 200 pounds, with an English accent” and a wispy beard and/or mustache.
In the face of curses and insults the two officers apparently remained calm and unwavering in pursuit of their sworn duty to confiscate the weed.
“We’re taking this illegal substance,” Henry remembers the larger of the two officers telling him.
At no point did officers ask if he had a medical cannabis card (he doesn’t).
Henry says that the amount of cannabis confiscated from him was nearly 30 grams. He explained that he had purchased it an hour earlier on spec, from another seemingly homeless person that he did not know personally but who, he said, was carrying an awful lot of weed.
The fellow only wanted $50—payable next welfare day—for what Henry estimated was $150-worth of quality weed.
It was too good a deal to pass up but in retrospect Henry wonders if he was set up.
Putting Henry’s paranoia aside, I am inclined to view the cannabis seizure as targeted harassment on the part of the Vancouver police against the visible homelessness in the upscale South Granville area of the Fairview neighbourhood.
However, it’s arguable that it was just business as usual for the VPD.
Enforcing a bad law right to the bitter end
Cannabis will become legal in Canada on October 17—a mere 12 weeks from now. At that point adults in British Columbia will be legally allowed to possess up to 30 grams of cannabis in a public place (the same amount Henry was carrying) under the province's new Cannabis Control and Licensing Act, passed earlier this month.
Sunday’s seizure suggests that until the day of legalization the VPD will continue to enforce the current law as it has seen fit to do for the last several years.
In 2015 VPD Sgt. Const. Brian Montague explained to the Georgia Straight that the likely outcome, when an officer catches someone smoking a joint, would be to destroy the drugs and record the cannabis offence, along with the personal details of the offender, but to otherwise let the person go.
Vancouver police will seize and destroy any quantity of cannabis over an ounce, but with no criminal charges for the possessor, where personal use is concerned; effectively treating personal use of cannabis as decriminalized, if not legalized.
Meanwhile charges for cannabis possession continue to be laid in many other parts of Canada, including Alberta and everywhere the RCMP enforces the law. According to June 2017 National Post story, over 15,000 Canadians were charged with possession of pot in the first 20 months following the election of the Trudeau government in October 2015.
Between the election of Justin Trudeau on a platform of legalizing cannabis and the actual date of legalization, many thousands of Canadians will have earned a conviction and a criminal record for possession of cannabis outside of the City of Vancouver.
But while the Trudeau government has given considerable thought to the nitty-gritty of taxing recreational cannabis, it has refused to discuss the need for cannabis possession amnesty in concrete terms, so long as cannabis remains illegal.
So it could be said that in one way Henry was lucky. Vancouver police officers took his bag of weed and they took down his name, but they did not take him into custody or charge him with possession, as it appears the Surrey RCMP would have done.
But it’s the VPD’s choice not to charge people for possession of cannabis. Why can’t the force also choose not to confiscate the cannabis?
In fact, I’m giving the VPD the benefit of the doubt in seeing the seizure of Henry’s cannabis as an example of an ongoing, across-the-board policy to confiscate cannabis over an ounce wherever officers find it. Perhaps that is no longer the case. Perhaps the VPD no longer confiscates cannabis over an ounce, as a rule.
Perhaps Sunday’s seizure really was a special effort to target and harassment a homeless person. I haven’t enough information to know, one way or the other.
Whatever the motivation though, I am dead certain that Vancouver law enforcement was an ass for seizing Henry’s cannabis, only weeks ahead of cannabis becoming legal. And the result is harassment even if that was not the intent.
Henry has been robbed of at least $50 worth of cannabis and all the safe, pain-alleviating benefits that go with it, so far as his injured shoulder is concerned. He will be hard-pressed to replace the cannabis and he will suffer as a result.
The Vancouver police cannot be made to return the cannabis they took from Henry but they should at least draw the line and stop seizing it altogether—especially from homeless people. Nothing good can come from it. All it can do is cause harm, as it has done to my friend Henry.