Former Vancouver mayor defends B.C.'s approach to drug decriminalization

Former Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart has authored a book called Decrim: How We Decriminalized Drugs in British Columbia, which documents the province's policy journey in the attempt to curb the number of people dying from toxic drugs. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Former Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart has authored a book called Decrim: How We Decriminalized Drugs in British Columbia, which documents the province's policy journey in the attempt to curb the number of people dying from toxic drugs. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

British Columbians will not have to worry about legal ramifications if they are in possession of a small amount of illicit drugs as of Jan. 31, 2023, and the former mayor of the province's largest city says this is the right move to reduce the staggering number of daily deaths in the province.

Kennedy Stewart, who lost the municipal election in October to Ken Sim, has been a prominent supporter of decriminalization both during his tenure as mayor of Vancouver and now in his new role as director of the Centre for Public Policy Research at Simon Fraser University.

The city has been the site of a surge in drug overdose deaths that accelerated throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and, under Stewart's leadership, city council passed a motion in November 2020 to decriminalize the simple possession of illicit drugs in Vancouver by seeking an exemption from Health Canada under the Controlled Drugs and Substance Act.

That eventually morphed into a province-wide application that was accepted by Ottawa, though at a lower threshold than the 4.5 grams B.C. asked for. As of Jan. 31, people aged 18 and older will now be able to possess up to a cumulative 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA within the province.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Stewart, who has a book coming out in May documenting how policy has progressed to this point, says while the move is not a "silver bullet," it is an important part of the puzzle.

"It moves us away from the war-on-drugs approach to saving lives and I think that's an important part of getting police further out of the lives of folks that are living with addiction," said Stewart, speaking to The Early Edition Wednesday.

"The world is watching and I think we all have to be conscious of this," he added.

While advocates for drug users say decriminalization alone won't stop thousands of people dying from a tainted drug supply, others say it is a step in the right direction when it comes to treatment.

A polarizing documentary, Vancouver Is Dying, that was released in October as well as a recent video by federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre have pointed fingers at B.C.'s slate of harm-reduction policies.

Stewart said federal Conservatives are pushing more to get people off drugs than to make sure users are not incriminated. When decriminalization in B.C. was announced last May, then-Alberta premier Jason Kenney also criticized the decision.

"As a neighbouring province, the Government of Alberta is alarmed by this announcement to decriminalize and we will be monitoring the situation very closely," he said.

"I want to state in the strongest possible terms to the Government of Canada and the Government of British Columbia that Alberta will exhaust all options should their actions cause damage to Albertans."

 

Stewart said while the push to get people clean is valid, there are still so many deaths from toxic drugs that keeping users safe is critical.

He added that rallying against harm-reduction policy — such as safe supply and decriminalization — is dangerous.

"We still have one person dying a day in the city. We have over six people dying a day in the province. We all have to put aside our egos and and make this thing work," said Stewart.

Drug user advocates have also criticized the incoming policy, saying entrenched drug users need much more than 2.5 grams a day.

Carolyn Bennett, federal minister of mental health and addictions, said the government's decision to reduce the threshold for possession from 4.5 grams was based on input from law enforcement across the country.

She said the threshold is a "starting point" that can be adjusted as needed.