It's likely a first for North America. The City of Vancouver has officially “recommended” that the Government of Canada “immediately” decriminalize the personal possession of all drugs, including hard drugs like cocaine and heroin.
The policy suggestion appears near the bottom of a media release issued this morning (March 9). The release emphasizes that Vancouver’s overdose crisis killed 365 residents last year and now could be getting even worse.
“We are witnessing a horrific and preventable loss of life as a poisoned drug supply continues to kill our neighbours, friends, and family," Mayor Gregor Robertson said, quoted in the release. "Volunteers and first responders are working around the clock to keep people alive, but lives are on the line and more action is urgently needed.
“We will keep pushing for bold solutions, and that includes breaking down the stigma that leads people to use drugs alone at home, addressing access to a clean supply through drug testing equipment, and dramatically improving a range of treatment options like opioid substitution therapy," Robertson continued.
In response to the crisis, the city has recommended that the federal government “convene a multi-sectoral task force to implement immediate decriminalization of personal possession of illicit drugs.”
In Canada, drugs like cocaine, heroin, and illicit fentanyl are illegal at the federal level. They’re listed in Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which describes their possession as a criminal offence. That means you can go to jail simply for having these substances in your pocket, which leads people to hide their drug use.
According to the B.C. Coroners Service, in 2017, 59 percent of fatal overdoses occurred inside, in a private residence, while another 25 percent occurred inside another sort of residence, such as a hotel room or shelter. Only 11.5 percent occurred outside.
The city’s call for the government to decriminalize drugs would involve removing sections of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that apply to the personal possession of the drugs in question.
It would require changes to federal legislation but relatively simple changes.
Decriminalizing drugs would be very different from what the federal government is doing with recreational marijuana, for example. With marijuana, Canada is legalizing and regulating the drug’s cultivation, distribution, and sales.
Decriminalization would not involve regulating hard drugs; it would only remove criminal penalties for possessing them.
Last year, there were 1,436 illicit-drug overdose deaths across B.C. That compares to an average of 204 deaths annually for the years 2001 to 2010. More than 80 percent of 2017 deaths were associated with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid significantly more toxic than heroin.
More than 1,400 overdose deaths in a single year is more than the number of people who died of homicides, suicides, and motor-vehicle accidents combined.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has repeatedly ruled out decriminalizing drugs.
"We are not looking at decriminalizing or legalizing any other drugs aside from cannabis, as decriminalizing would not ensure quality control of drugs, and there would still be the risk of contamination on the streets,” Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said in the legislature on February 2.
Trudeau has said the same thing on several occasions.
“We’re not looking at decriminalization or legalization of any other drugs other than what we’re doing with marijuana,” Trudeau told Global News while in Vancouver last August.
While a call to decriminalize all drugs might sound radical, the City of Vancouver’s recommendation is actually in line with the views of top health officials and prominent politicians in B.C.
For example, Dr. Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer and vice president of public health for Vancouver Coastal Health, said in April 2016: “Personally, I think we need to be thinking about the decriminalization of drug use and perhaps having legal options for all drug users, including opioid drug users, so that they don’t have to go to the illicit drug market for their addiction.”
And in September 2017, Judy Darcy, the B.C. minister of mental health addiction, said: "I think we need to have this conversation in this country."
The same month, Dr. Mark Tyndall, executive director of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, argued that the criminalization of drugs is simply a failure.
“Fentanyl is a textbook example of what happens when prohibition takes over,” he said. “Substances get easier and easier to import, more and more potent, and this is what we’re left with.
“I know it is quite tempting to say we should throw a lot of resources at trying to stop these dealers and stop these imports,” Tyndall continued, “but I think it’s a fool’s game.”
B.C. politicians who have voiced support for decriminalization or at least for a public debate on the issue include Don Davies, NDP MP for Vancouver Kingsway; Dr. Hedy Fry, Liberal MP for Vancouver Centre; Sam Sullivan, B.C. Liberal MLA for Vancouver–False Creek; and Andrew Weaver, leader of the B.C. Green Party, among others.
B.C.’s former health minister, Terry Lake, also voiced cautious support for the idea before he left politics last year.
“I’m not the justice minister, I’m not the attorney-general, so I don’t want to speak for them, but I would say that we have recognized over the years that the war on drugs has largely been a failure,” Lake told the Globe and Mail. “And I think all levels of government are recognizing that, so let’s put a public health lens on this, treat it as a health and social issue that we need to manage…I think there’s a general movement in that direction.”
The leader of the federal NDP, Jagmeet Singh, is also in agreement with the position that the City of Vancouver adopted today.
"I can tell you that people who are charged with personal-possession offences are often those who are poor, often those who have mental-health issues, and often those who are addicted,” he said last September.
"This does not sound to me like a criminal-justice problem. That sounds to me like a social-justice problem and a health-care problem," Singh continued.
"I would call for the decriminalization of all personal-possession offences when it comes to drugs. Period."More