On paper, it appears that Vancouver police are waging the war on drugs with a lot less enthusiasm these days.
The year in which officers logged the most Criminal Code violations for drugs was 2006, when there were 5,183 recorded by the force, according to VPD annual reports.
Since then, there’s been a consistent downward trend, to an all-time low of 1,556 drug crimes in 2016 and then 1,629 in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available.
Between 2006 and 2017, cannabis offences declined 61 percent, cocaine offences declined 80 percent, heroin offences dropped 37 percent, and recorded Criminal Code infractions for methamphetamine, fentanyl, and other drugs declined 73 percent. (The VPD tweaked how it tracks these statistics in 2012, but not in a way that would significantly affect the analysis presented here.)
On the streets, however, drug users and legal advocates told the Straight that it’s a different story.
Laura Shaver, vice president of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), said the numbers look positive and are good news, but she argued they don’t reveal the whole picture.
“People on the street are still getting into trouble,” she said in a telephone interview.
Shaver recounted the experience of a friend. “About a week ago, the cops pulled her over, they took everything from her, and they didn’t arrest her,” Shaver said. She added that every VANDU member can tell a story like that, about the sort of encounter that might not appear in VPD stats but which still occurred as someone’s negative interaction with police.
Caitlin Shane is a Pivot Legal Society staff lawyer who focuses on drug policy. She told the Straight that drug confiscations remain a constant problem, especially in marginalized communities like Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
“On paper, the Vancouver Police Department can say, ‘Look, our stats have gone down. We are taking a harm-reduction approach to policing and drug use,’” Shane said. “But what is actually happening is people are still getting hassled on a daily basis.”
Vancouver has long had a drug problem. How law enforcement should respond has increasingly become the subject of debate since the synthetic-opioid fentanyl arrived in 2013 and subsequently sent overdose deaths skyrocketing. In recent years, a number of politicians and health officials have called for the federal government to drop criminal penalties for the personal possession of drugs.
“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,” former Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson said in April 2018. “Decriminalizing possession, combined with health care supports including prevention, harm reduction, and treatment, will save many lives.”
More recently, in February 2019, B.C.’s chief medical health officer, Bonnie Henry, suggested it might be possible for B.C. to move ahead without waiting for Ottawa. “What my office is looking at is how we can have de facto decriminalization for people who use drugs in B.C.,” she said.
Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart has however said that decriminalization does not rank among his priorities. “I don’t think that it’s going to come at the federal level any time soon, so I just want to focus on stuff I can accomplish,” he told the Globe and Mail just before last October’s civic election.
The VPD did not make a representative available for an interview. For years, the force has stated publicly that low-level drug crimes are no longer a “policing priority”. On January 10, for example, Deputy Chief Const. Howard Chow wrote on social media: “We do not arrest and charge people for simple drug possession.”
Shaver and Shane both said it’s a good thing that fewer people in Vancouver are saddled with criminal records for drugs but they also both maintained that a police encounter that’s never entered into a computer system can still have severe consequences.
“Living under fear of police arrest is going to lead to all sorts of more-dangerous situations for people who use drugs,” Shane said.
Shaver explained that the effect is stigma, which causes people to use drugs alone, away from friends or family who could otherwise respond in the event of an overdose.
“It makes people hide, and that makes people die on their own,” Shaver said.