This Thursday (June 7), Vancouver's First United Church will hold a panel discussion on decriminalization. That is, on what would happen if Canada were to remove criminal penalties for the personal possession of drugs, including hard drugs like cocaine and heroin.
The church will not present opposing views, its executive director, Rev. Carmen Lansdowne, told the Straight.
"It's not a debate," she explained in a telephone interview. "We made a very conscious choice to promote education around why we feel drug decriminalization is important. And so we won't have voices that are opposed to it, and that was an intentional choice on our part."
The experts panel convened by the Downtown Eastside church will consist of Mary Clare Zak, director of social policy for the City of Vancouver, Dr. Evan Wood, director of the B.C. Centre on Substance Use; and Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and former drug-policy coordinator for the City of Vancouver.
It is titled "Why decriminalize?".
Lansdowne said there are lots of very good answers to that question. One of her favourites, she continued, recently made headlines around North America when it was voiced by Cynthia Nixon, a candidate for New York governor and former star of the HBO series Sex and the City.
"It comes down to this," Nixon said last April. We have to stop putting people of colour in jail for something that white people do with impunity.
"Eighty percent of the New Yorkers who are arrested for marijuana are black or Latino, despite the fact that whites and people of colour use marijuana at roughly the same rates," she continued. "The consequences follow people for the rest of their lives, making it harder to get jobs or housing
"The simple truth is, for white people, the use of marijuana has effectively been legal for a long time. Isn't it time we legalized it for everybody else?"
Lansdowne said that although Nixon was speaking about recreational marijuana, the same arguments apply to all illicit narcotics.
"There are many people for whom using drugs is decriminalized already, just by virtue of the other privileges that they hold in society," Lansdowne said. "And so by making it a health issue and not an issue of criminality, we are removing a barrier that people in this community face.
She added that on Thursday, the church's panelists will also discuss how decriminalization could help address the fentanyl crisis, which killed 1,448 people in B.C. last year.
Lansdowne argued that support for decriminalization is gaining momentum.
On Saturday (June 2), the B.C. chapter of the United Church of Canada held its annual general meeting in Penticton and there voted to support the Vancouver church's call for decriminalization.
“Criminalization of simple possession is unnecessarily harming individuals, families and communities, frequently in situations where those people are already struggling," said Rev. Christine Boyle, a minister and 2018 candidate for Vancouver city council, in a media release. “It’s an approach that is failing, and it’s time that we recognize that reality, and instead take an approach that recognizes the worth and dignity of people facing addiction.”
The United Church of Canada's B.C. chapter will now formally request that the national organization's general secretary advocate for decriminalization at the federal level.
In March 2018, the City of Vancouver officially adopted a position in favour of decriminalization. In response to the overdose crisis, it recommended that the Canadian government “convene a multi-sectoral task force to implement immediate decriminalization of personal possession of illicit drugs.”
Since then, Mayor Gregor Robertson has repeatedly explained his personal support for the idea.
“We are losing our friends and family to a poisoned drug supply and a legal framework that treats addiction as a criminal issue, not a life-threatening health condition,” he said in April. “People are dying from poisoned drugs every day in Vancouver and we cannot accept this preventable catastrophe—we need to ensure people with addictions can access safe drugs and effective treatment options.
“Decriminalizing possession, combined with health care supports including prevention, harm reduction, and treatment, will save many lives,” Robertson added.
First United Church's panel discussion on decriminalization is scheduled for this Thursday (June 7), beginning at 7 p.m. at St. Andrew's-Wesley United Church (1022 Neslon Street). Admission is by donation.