New data on the question of drug decriminalization might surprise people.
According to a poll by Research Co., a majority of Vancouver residents support the idea of removing criminal penalties for the personal possession of illicit narcotics. And not just a majority but a wide majority of two to one, according to the data, which was supplied to the Straight by the city of Vancouver.
Here’s how the question was posed:
“Vancouver has been the hardest hit city in Canada by the opioid overdose crisis, with one person a day dying in 2017. Recently, several officials, including Mayor Gregor Robertson, have called for the decriminalization of all drugs as a way to try and reduce deaths. Decriminalization would mean that people with illegal drugs would not go to jail, but would be ticketed or fined. The manufacturing and trafficking of illicit drugs would still be illegal. Thinking about this, do you support or oppose decriminalizing all drugs? Choose one.”
The choices were “strongly support,” “somewhat support,” “somewhat oppose,” “strongly oppose”, and “not sure”.
Research Co. took the question to 400 Vancouver residents from April 6 to 10. And the results?
The “strongly support” option was selected by 38 percent of respondents and another 24 percent chose “somewhat support”. That makes for a total of 62 percent stating they like the idea of drug decriminalization.
Meanwhile, 20 percent said they “strongly oppose” and 12 percent said they “somewhat oppose”, to make for a total of 32 percent of respondents suggesting they want drugs to remain illegal like they are today.
Support was highest among Vancouver residents aged 18 to 34. Opposition was strongest among respondents 55 and older.
On March 9, Vancouver likely became the first city in North America to adopt a position in favour of decriminalizing the personal possession of drugs, including hard drugs like cocaine and heroin.
“We are witnessing a horrific and preventable loss of life as a poisoned drug supply continues to kill our neighbours, friends, and family," Robertson said quoted in a media release issued that day.
“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," he continued there.
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.
The logic behind a call for decriminalization is based on an understanding that by removing criminal penalties for personal possession, drug users would be less inclined to hide their use and more likely to seek treatment and use drugs out in the open, in settings where there is someone available to respond in the event of an overdose.
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.
Last year, there were 1,448 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.
In addition to Robertson, prominent advocates for decriminalization include federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, Vancouver Liberal MLA Sam Sullivan, and B.C. Centre for Disease Control executive director Dr. Mark Tyndall, to name just three.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has however repeatedly ruled out decriminalizing drugs.