Caitlin Shane: Decriminalize drugs across Vancouver and watch the harm recede

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      If you live in Vancouver, you’ve probably already heard calls for drug decriminalization, a policy that removes the possibility of arrest for possessing small amounts of illicit drugs.

      Vancouver city council first endorsed decriminalization in 2010 and later called for it in 2018, when it vowed to create a task force to implement “immediate decriminalization of personal possession”.

      In 2019, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which includes Vancouver, passed a motion calling on the federal government to grant exemptions “to allow cities and towns to implement innovative pilot programs that prioritize diversion to safe supply”.

      A decade after that first endorsement of decriminalization, however, people who use drugs in Vancouver still live in fear of arrest, particularly those who are poor, racialized, or otherwise marginalized. Simply travelling to a supervised consumption site or overdose prevention site can land you in jail, despite urgings from government to use those sites. Meanwhile, fatal overdose rates have reached a record high since the onset of COVID-19.

      Clearly, it is not enough for Vancouver to strike yet another “task force”, nor to “call on” the federal government to act. This kind of talk is cheap, especially when action is so uncomplicated.

      In a new report titled Act Now! Decriminalizing Drugs in Vancouver, Pivot Legal Society urges the City of Vancouver to move beyond symbolic gestures and implement decriminalization by actively applying for a citywide exemption from the federal government against the offence of drug possession.

      Throughout Canada, exemptions already permit numerous decriminalized “zones”—and have done so, largely without issue, for years. The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which prohibits drug possession, expressly allows the minister of health to exempt any person or class of persons from any offence in the act. Exemptions are routinely used to protect clinical drug trials, handlers of post-consumer drug returns, and patrons and staff of supervised consumption sites.

      No, decriminalization is not a “silver bullet”. But it’s a critical and so-far unused tool to curb rampant deaths associated with criminalization and can help to shift the national dialogue on drug use. It’s a way to reallocate funding toward wraparound health services and improve the accessibility and efficacy of existing resources, including B.C.’s fledgling safe supply programming.

      Globally, decriminalization is recognized as an effective means to alleviate the public health and safety harms associated with substance use under prohibition. In Portugal, mere partial decriminalization led to an over 80 percent drop in overdose deaths, a 46 percent drop in the prevalence rate of people who use drugs accounting for new diagnoses of HIV and AIDS, an over 40 percent drop in the rate of incarceration for drug offences, and an 18 percent drop in the per capita social cost of drug misuse. Overall drug use did not increase, and problematic drug use decreased.

      Compare this with the scene in Vancouver, where public assurances from the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) that officers “do not arrest and charge people for simple possession” have time and again proven false and misleading. Residents of the Downtown Eastside report that VPD officers do arrest for simple possession—based on individual police temperaments, relationships between police and individuals, and stereotypes.

      Numerous studies and a 2020 freedom-of-information request reveal that VPD officers commonly confiscate drugs in the amount of less than 0.1 gram. A 2019 study from the B.C. Centre on Substance Use also found that VPD officers commonly “harass” people who are using drugs outside; loiter outside and around overdose prevention sites, discouraging site use; and stop and search individuals, “particularly Indigenous people and people of color, within the drug-scene and within the immediate areas surrounding [overdose prevention sites]”.

      Decriminalization would seem to be the natural culmination of what is now a chorus of prominent voices calling for an end to drug criminalization, including those of Dr. Bonnie Henry, Premier John Horgan, and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. And yet, no government—municipal, provincial, or federal—has made a move.

      If the city genuinely wants to see decriminalization (as it has claimed to for nearly a decade), it can take concrete steps to get there by actually submitting an application for a citywide exemption. The same is true for any city or province in Canada. It’s time to Act Now!