Vancouver police change their tune in the days following a questionable cannabis confiscation

The Vancouver Police Department made two timely cannabis-friendly announcements this week

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      In a public meeting Wednesday (Sept 26), the Vancouver Police Board passed an amendment loosening the department's regulations around cannabis consumption for all its members.

      This decision is one of two progressive announcements from the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) relating to cannabis this week—both following a publicly condemned police seizure of cannabis meant for harm reduction efforts in the Downtown Eastside (DTES).

      The amended policy

      Following the recommendations of an internal report, members of the VPD, sworn and civilian, will be able to consume cannabis while off-duty, however they are required to show up fit for work—or, in layman's terms, not high. This policy effectively opens the door to officer's now being able to treat conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder or physical ailments with weed.

      Presenting the policy report to the board was Drazen Manojlovic, director of the planning, research, and audit section.

      Manojlovic stressed that, like consuming alcohol, it is an officer’s responsibility to show up to work unimpaired, and the goal of the new policy is to train them to make informed decisions around intoxication.

      The department opted against setting a timeframe from which to stop consuming before a shift and chose not to subject officers to randomized drug testing—an acknowledgement of the lack of evidence linking cannabinoid content in the human body to impairment.

      “It [the policy] essentially mirrors existing practices the VPD has had for previous legal substances, such as alcohol and prescription medication,” he said.

      “It is very consistent with what we’ve practiced before…and it focuses also on the member’s well-being.”

      Manojlovic added that the research for this policy change started in March and it acts as a framework for a substantial overhaul of the training protocols surrounding pot consumption.

      “What is difficult to explain in this report is the significant amount of training that we’ve developed and will be delivered prior to the legalization of cannabis,” he said.

      “The training will be extensive and it focuses on member’s awareness with regard to the effects of cannabis and how that might affect them in their off-hours, and they need to be aware of that prior to arriving for work.”

      A second cannabis-related decision

      The amendment comes just a few days after another announcement from the chief of Vancouver police relating to the new federal cannabis laws.

      On Monday (Sept 24), Chief Adam Palmer announced that Vancouver officers will not be using the Dräeger Drug Test 5000—a controversial oral fluid detection device—as a tool at the roadside.

      The federally approved saliva testing kit recently garnered a great deal of public criticism for its approach to determining cannabis impairment. Driver's suspected to be under the influence of drugs will be orally swabbed and, if found in violation of a new per se limits for tetrahydrocannabinoid (THC), they will be charged accordingly

      As mentioned previously, with little to no evidence linking the level of cannabinoids—compounds found in cannabis—to intoxication, the kit scientifically falls short of accurately detecting whether or not a driver is considered too high to drive. 

      “There may be other agencies in British Columbia that will deploy it, and other places in Canada, but our experts have looked at it, and it doesn’t meet our requirements so we’re going to pass on this one,” Palmer told CKNW Radio's Lynda Steele Show on Monday.

      Police chief addresses seized cannabis

      In light of legalization, an overhaul in police training in regard to cannabis consumption is to be expected. While the two decisions seem to signal a shift in thinking, it was a speech by Palmer that drew attention back to a recent incident highlighting the necessity for change.

      After the amendment passed, Palmer took time to share a few comments on the recent Vancouver police seizure of cannabis products from a substitution program operating out of a market in the city's most impoverished neighbourhood.

      On Sept 14, a variety of cannabis products were being sold and given away to locals in the neighbourhood by the Overdose Prevention Society (OPS)—a local non-profit harm reduction organization. Officers spotted the group and, having given a verbal warning the day prior, decided to confiscate the products.

      President of OPS Sarah Blyth filmed several encounters with the officers, including one video in which a uniformed officer pushes her away from the booth while his colleague collects the products.

      Palmer indicated that the incident was portrayed poorly by the media and said he hoped by sharing more details people would better “understand the circumstances”.

      Watch below for the original statement by Sgt. Jason Robillard, which Palmer then essentially rehashed in the meeting.

      “They have to use compassion and common sense and good sense when they're policing in that neighbourhood, which is what they did,” Palmer said.

      “There are a lot of things that do get looked over and our officers are very forgiving. But it cannot be a free for all, it cannot be just absolutely anything goes, and people can make homemade products and bring them out for public consumption. It’s just not safe.”

      Palmer’s statement, however, didn't address the crux of the issue. The media and cannabis advocates are not criticizing the legality of the seizure, but the morality of the decision considering the products were intended to help locals in the DTES to treat addiction and other health conditions.

      Police in the DTES are aware of the organization and Blyth, who was standing merely feet away filming the incident during the seizure. As no one would claim the products during the inspection, however, Palmer says the officers made a decisions based on the information they had at the time. 

      Yesterday (Sept 27), Pivot Legal Society collected nearly two dozen public statements citing former cases of harassment with two officer’s involved in the seizure, both known only by their badge numbers. The group intends to file a mass complaint against the VPD.

      Moving forward

      During the public meeting, Manojlovic added that all policies and protocols would be revisited and adjusted as cannabis legalization “unveils itself” over the coming months.

      Whether or not these two decisions are a white flag from within the department singling a pro-cannabis shift in thinking is yet to be seen. The best representation of the VPD's attitude towards the cannabis will be demonstrated in the way its officers police illicit dispensaries, cannabis events, and public consumption after Oct 17.