Decrim training for BC police highlights big gaps in our drug policy

    1 of 3 2 of 3

      By Tyson Singh Kelsall and Liam Michaud

      Drug decriminalization training for BC police officers is showing how far we still have to go with the Province’s decrim policy.

      Via a freedom of information (FOI) request to the BC Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions (MMHA), we obtained the police training assets for how to implement BC’s decriminalization of personal possession of 2.5 grams of certain drugs. This training, developed in collaboration with the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, paints an unsettling picture.

      There have been more than 10,000 premature deaths caused by drug toxicity since the BC NDP took power in 2017. Drug toxicity is the leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 59 in BC.

      On CBC’s The National earlier this month, BC NDP Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jennifer Whiteside was unable to name anything significant that the party has done to intervene in the toxic drug supply, other than permitting “prescribed safer supply”: an intensive medical program only available to a fraction of people who could benefit from it, and currently being clawed back in practice.

      Whiteside was elected in 2020 and was tapped to lead the MMHA in 2022. In a video as part of the police training package, Whiteside looks into the camera and explains that the province’s decriminalization framework has been implemented “largely because police called for it.” 

      The BC NDP’s decriminalization model has certainly been heavily influenced by police since its inception, and it broadens the range of reasons officers have to intervene in people’s lives. But it was the sustained and assertive advocacy of drug users that put the idea of decriminalization on the political radar to begin with. 

      The Vancouver police union-backed city council, which features a former VPD spokesperson who perpetuated unfounded fears of overdose caused by touching fentanyl in his former role (there are other cop-council connections), ratified a new police union contract this week. The deal will make VPD officers the highest paid in the country starting next year. The municipal costs of the VPD surpassed $1 million per day in this year’s City budget.

      In an email, the MMHA confirmed that the decrim training is not mandatory, but is strongly recommended, citing that 88 per cent of street-level officers have taken it so far.

      The problem is that this training demonstrates how ripe our decriminalization framework is for police abuse.

      The dangers of mixing police and drugs

      Police practices have played a large role in the drug supply becoming increasingly toxic and unpredictable, while the provincial and federal governments simultaneously refuse to create access routes to a predictable drug supply at potencies, doses, and in settings people actually use.

      The criminalization of drug use(rs) also makes up a substantial portion of BC police budgets. 

      Prior to decriminalization, seizing drugs from people without arrest was very common in BC—part of a broader umbrella of prohibitionist policies. The VPD, for example, conducted thousands of these minor seizures between 2017 and 2020.

      The training is explicit in the wide discretion that police officers are provided within the model. It states that police “will not be able to determine the purity/toxicity of the illegal substance or what other substances are mixed in,” and that “you will need to ask the adult what they believe the illegal substance to be.”

      It then specifies that “police will not be sending samples to Health Canada,” while also noting that “the only way to know exactly what the drug is would be to send a sample to Health Canada for analysis.”

      As previously confirmed, police will be judging the weight of various drugs by eyesight. The training presents some examples of what 2.5 grams of drugs can look like, first by comparing the threshold amounts to a 25 cent coin. 

      It then guides viewers through other examples, including comparisons of cocaine in tightly-tied baggies versus dime bags. 

      Police discretion, speculation, and individual officer judgment seem to only increase under this framework.

      To rationalize this, the MMHA appeared to lean into disinformation about the risks of touching fentanyl, writing that “it is neither practical nor safe to take potentially toxic drugs listed in the exemption out of their packaging in public”—though it did not name any potential risks.

      In a statement, Whiteside says that decriminalization “aims to reduce stigma and make it easier for people to reach out for help,” and that “it is one of the tools that…support people through their recovery journey.”

      But Caitlin Shane, a drug policy lawyer who is part of BC’s Decriminalization Core Planning Table, says the current model doesn’t properly take users into account.

      “Had BC drafted its decriminalization policy with evidence and public health in mind—that is, had they listened to people who use drugs and other public health experts rather than cave to the unevidenced direction of police—we might have a policy that actually decriminalizes drug possession,” she says.

      The training also confirms that there are no new accountability mechanisms for victims of police abuse, or for their failure to follow the new law. 

      Veering into recriminalization territory

      The FOI notes the BC and federal governments “will be working closely to evaluate and monitor this exemption,” including to ensure “that people are not being recriminalized.”

      Despite this, the training points to a range of legal tools that police have at their disposal to continue with routine enforcement against people who use drugs. These include public intoxication prohibitions, the Trespass Act, nuisance bylaws, new municipal bylaws, and Liquor Control and Licensing Act, in addition to the range of spatial exceptions to the initial decrim pilot, such as vehicles. 

      Municipalities have attempted to pass a flurry of new bylaws in response to the provincial decrim pilot, which have been widely decried as working against the goals of decriminalization and cementing the role of police in matters of substance use. 

      The Mental Health Act is another legal tool BC police are empowered to apply. There is a trend of mental health law being used in situations where substance use is the primary diagnosis. A previous FOI request shows that Vancouver Coastal Health ensured their police-nurse partnership Car 87 was “on standby” during the April 2023 Hastings Street encampment displacement. By weaponizing mental health law, police contribute to a violent legacy of forced institutionalization. This is part of a broader dynamic of police inserting themselves into healthcare, leading to peoples’ disengagement with health services

      The training also recommends that police document distribution of a new voluntary resource card—given to people in lieu of arrest for simple possession—in PRIME, the provincial police records database. It remains to be seen how this might impact peoples’ subsequent encounters with police. Will this be used as a pretext for police during routine stops, or other encounters, if PRIME flags someone as a drug user?

      Further, the disclosure emphasizes “cracking down on those who distribute toxic drugs” and fighting organized crime “through enforcement of laws pertaining to trafficking.” 

      This oft-repeated refrain simplifies and misrepresents reality. Existing trafficking laws in Canada are so broad that they also criminalize trading and purchasing for shared use, even though these practices are an everyday reality for many people. By conjuring the bogeyman of the predatory “drug dealer” or “kingpin,” the BC Government obscures the reality that the majority of those violating trafficking laws are doing so for subsistence or to support personal use. It also obscures that it is likely to be people in this situation who are the target of drug enforcement.

      According to Shane, “we’ve been given a half-measure—one that allows police to justify an ever-inflating budget for training and labour costs to discern between arbitrary substances of arbitrary quantities.” 

      Looming Bill 34

      This police training was developed well before Premier David Eby announced plans to further criminalize drug users in virtually all outdoor spaces.

      Bill 34, named the Restricting Public Consumption of Illegal Substances Act, has not yet  been implemented and is facing a constitutional challenge. 

      In a press release on their intent to challenge Bill 34, the Harm Reduction Nurses Association wrote that they want all “members of our communities to thrive. But that can’t happen when the government passes a law that almost certainly will lead to more fatalities.” 

      The evidence is clear: in settings where the drug supply is toxic, involuntary displacement is linked to death. Police efforts to disrupt local drug markets by seizing drugs is significantly associated with both fatal and nonfatal overdose

      Bill 34 would undo one of the few benefits that appear to be linked to the decrim model: arrests (the government has reported a 76 per cent reduction in arrests where personal possession is the “most serious offence” across the province.)

      The MMHA states that Bill 34 “enables police to redirect people to more appropriate places,” but did not offer where that could be. Rumneek Johal reported last week that Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth shared that his government “recognizes that vulnerable and/or unhoused people often do not have many reasonable options for places to consume drugs, particularly in places that do not yet have adequate overdose prevention services.”

      Bill 34 would effectively kill any foreseeable chance at scaling up decriminalization in a way that would meaningfully address the harms of prohibition and enforcement. Should the BC pilot expire, as it is set to do in less than three years, drug users may be left with fewer rights than prior to its existence. 

      The training and MMHA both called drug seizures harmful, yet the BC Government is working to expand this practice. 

      The ongoing legacy of racial profiling in policing indicates these pathways to recriminalize drug users are likely to particularly impact visible (outdoor, poor) and racialized drug users. The further carve-outs to the decrim model called for by police and proposed in Bill 34 are consistent with historic drug laws, such as the Opium Act and earlier versions of the Indian Act, which collectively targeted Asian and Indigenous people.

      Reduced criminalization should mean less police funding—not more

      In an interview on All Access Pass, drug user rights advocate and Crackdown host Garth Mullins noted that “the police have been part of drafting policy on decriminalization. I think that’s troubling, because police have always gotten increases in budgets from the drug war. So they are kind of in a conflict of interest.”

      Outside of the costs burdened by the MMHA and Ministry of Public Safety for training, the FOI disclosure also specifies that health authorities will provide 12 “new positions” for staff to support officers and possible police referrals. All of these expenses fall outside of police budgets. 

      The expenditure of developing this training was $50,000 so far, per the MMHA email. When asked about further costs, the Ministry wrote that the Province plans to work “closely with police leadership to ensure that officers get the relevant information” about Bill 34. They added that the Province is providing health authorities with $12.4 million over four years “to support this work.”

      The rollout of the decriminalization pilot shows that BC’s framework did not end the criminalization of substance use or users. Instead, it has granted new functions to the police, and stands to expand the use of carceral violence by channeling further resources toward criminalizing and incarcerating workers at different levels of the unregulated drug market.

      Decrim has been the scapegoat—for media pundits and political parties with decreasing popularity alike—of many social issues since it was implemented 10 months ago. But this police training provides us with further evidence that decriminalizing drug users has never really happened. It is far past time to focus on the actual drivers of social issues in BC: lack of dignified and affordable housing, income insecurity, bloated police costs siphoning municipal budgets, and a volatile, unregulated drug market.

      The BC NDP decrim model seems, in many ways, to have been set up to fail.

      Tyson Singh ਤੈਸੋਨਂ ਸਿੰਘ is a PhD student in Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Health Sciences, and an outreach-based social worker in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Liam Michaud is a PhD candidate in Socio-Legal Studies at York University and has worked in harm reduction outreach in various capacities for 15 years.