Vancouver has made a big step forward in the possible decriminalization of drugs.
Last week, Mayor Kennedy Stewart announced the city's intention to seek leave from the federal government to approve a plan to decriminalize simple possession of illicit drugs within city limits.
Stewart described these types of offences as a health issue, rather than a criminal-justice issue. He also talked about the stigma associated with substance misuse. And he discussed the need to change our views on this behaviour as an essential step in the fight against opioid overdoses.
If the plan receives federal approval, Vancouver will become the first jurisdiction in the country to officially decriminalize the simple possession of drugs.
However, the legal mechanics around this plan will not be so cut and dried.
First, there is the question of what exactly will be decriminalized, and in what amounts. The scope of the application could include a number of different classified substances, and whether our municipal government wishes to treat them all equally is a question that it will have to seriously contemplate.
Then there are the logistics. There are some still motions which will need to be formally approved on a municipal level before the federal application process can even go ahead.
After that, the federal government will need to agree. It will have to make an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which is a task that may sound easier than it is.
If it all goes smoothly and according to plan, it could take months—if not years—to implement this proposal.
Even still, it is a welcome move, which is better late than never.
The opioid crisis is real, and it is serious. It has claimed the lives of more than 1,500 people since our province declared a public health emergency back in April, 2016.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the already dire situation for many already struggling with addictions, among other things.
In fact, lives claimed by the COVID-19 pandemic in this province pale in comparison to those taken by opioids.
The number of fentanyl-detected overdose deaths in B.C. so far this year was 963 through the end of September. That's nearly triple the 331 COVID-19 deaths recorded by November 20.
This reality is all the more jarring as a result of stigmatization, over-policing, a lack of support, and—ultimately—criminalization.
It is a harsh reality that any activity that is criminalized will ultimately become stigmatized. In some cases, this is useful. In others, however, it is not.
The stigmatization of drug use does damage. It creates shame, isolation, and marginalization. It is a health issues that cannot be properly addressed by the police or the criminal justice system.
Decriminalizing simple possession is likely to reduce marginalization for addicts and others who use illicit substances. It may encourage those who are struggling to seek treatment. It may also encourage others to access other sources of community support and resources, aimed at mitigating the inherent risks associated with illicit drug use.
It will help bring this issue out of the shadows and properly reframe it as a community health issue, rather than as isolated criminal activities.
And this is even in spite of our municipal police forces treating simple drug possession offences with leniency for quite some time.
Although the Vancouver Police Department maintains that their officers have not been enforcing laws around simple drug possession for a number of years now, decriminalization will make a difference even still.
After all, the mere existence of such laws, regardless of whether they are being actively enforced or not, is damaging for a number of concrete reasons.
Popular perception and opinions about drug use aside, it is no secret that individual officers are able to act according to their discretion. Some may use existing criminal laws as a basis to stop, question, or detain individuals.
Visible minorities, unhoused people, and those who are racialized are more frequently targeted by police for such purposes. Moreover, a large number of people are still charged with crimes tangentially related to the offence of simple drug possession, which can have an institutionalizing effect on drug users.
As other jurisdictions in the international community move toward the decriminalization of personal drug use, Vancouver is ripe to follow suit. As the city infamous for having the poorest postal code in Canada—and for being the epicentre of the opioid crisis—we must take action and set an example on this issue.
It is the first step—of many—in the right direction.