Drug decriminalization without youth is not decriminalization

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      The following opinion piece was sent to the Georgia Straight as a joint submission by the Coalition of Peers Dismantling the Drug War (CPDDW) and Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (Vancouver chapter).

      Following mounting public pressure, years of community-driven advocacy, and public health recommendations, Vancouver has finally set its sight on drug decriminalization, recently making public the details of the proposed "Vancouver Model".

      Community groups have highlighted the many shortcomings of this model, including its failure to meet community needs, impractical threshold amounts, and the prioritization of Vancouver Police Department (listed as coauthors) input over that of people who use drugs.

      Notably absent from this model are youth. Since the declaration of the public health emergency in 2016, one in five overdose fatalities have occurred in British Columbians under the age of 30, and on May 5, a 12-year-old Saanich girl, tragically, died from overdose. Research has long established that criminalization is at the root of many substance-use-related harms, and young people experience increased drug-use-related harms because of their age.

      We know that decriminalization is an evidence-based way to save lives, so why are youth being left out of the conversation?

      The Vancouver Model proposal explicitly states that youth under age 19 are excluded from its scope and that the VPD will support “young offenders” through offering “diversion pathways”. Although youth may not be included in this application for “legislative reasons”, it does not negate the potential for continued harm involved in criminalizing young people for drug use.

      This approach leaves youth susceptible to the discretionary powers of the police—powers that we know have been used to harm drug-using and street-involved youth. And there is no better way to signal that youth will continue to be criminalized for drug use than to refer to them as “offenders”.

      Similar to the recently passed Vancouver School Board motion to end the School Liaison Officer program (but maintain VPD involvement in other ways), the Vancouver Model takes pain to reaffirm the presence of police in the lives of youth, undercutting the entire spirit of decriminalization.

      There is a unique stigma attached to young people who use drugs that not only renders youth—including those over 19 and especially Black, Indigenous, street-involved, or in-care youth—more susceptible to punitive drug policies (and, yes, diversion pathways can be a form of punishment) but also leads decision makers to leave youth out of policy and programming considerations.

      The deeply ingrained belief that youth drug use represents a personal and societal failure to be swept under the rug rears its head again when allocating funds for harm-reduction services, treatment programs, and, now, when envisioning drug decriminalization.

      Reporting submitted to the B.C. government by the provincial Representative for Children and Youth has emphasized the need to acknowledge that youth use drugs and young people’s voices must be centred in harm reduction and drug-policy reform. Youth, like adults, need access to a spectrum of low-barrier services that consider their needs and uphold the principles of harm reduction.

      However, there is still little commitment to youth-focused services (e.g., overdose-prevention sites), substitution programs, and safer supply—which, while technically available to youth, remains practically inaccessible because of factors such as physician and caregiver reluctance to prescribe.

      The exclusion of youth voices in developing the Vancouver Model continues a worrying trend of drug-policy processes shutting out those who will be most impacted by reform: people who use drugs. Without a seat at the table, drug-user organizations (CPDDW, VANDU) and allied legal-advocacy groups (Pivot Legal Society) have made their own recommendations on practical drug decriminalization, proposing a different approach to threshold amounts and advocating for a more fulsome version of decriminalization. These are the expert opinions that should be prioritized.

      With shifting drug policies in British Columbia, all eyes are on Vancouver. Communities and advocates are watching closely, knowing well that our local approach may set the precedent for decriminalization elsewhere in Canada. The stakes are especially high for youth who continue to be disproportionately impacted by bad drug policy.

      That the Vancouver Model risks perpetuating harmful drug policies for youth is, sadly, to be expected when youth are not included in policy development. We need broader and diverse representation of youth perspectives in co-leading drug-policy reform. The City of Vancouver must commit to prioritizing youth voices over the cops who consider them “offenders”.

      This is our opportunity to set the bar for decriminalization; let’s get it right for everyone.