Vancouver mayor moves to decriminalize simple possession of illicit drugs

·3 min read

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart says he's preparing to table a motion that would see city council vote on the decriminalization of simple possession of illicit drugs.

"Personal possession and use of drugs are not a criminal justice issue, it's a health issue, and it's time we fully embraced a health-focused approach to substance use. In fact, it's long overdue," said Stewart during a news conference on Wednesday.

The city has been at the forefront of drug policy change, he said, adding his plan would see Vancouver become the first Canadian jurisdiction to take such action. 

After tabling the motion next week, Stewart said he'll write to federal officials requesting an exemption under the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that would end at the city's boundaries.

City officials would work with Vancouver Coastal Health and police to craft the letter, and negotiations with Ottawa would follow, he said.

Stewart said the exemption could be granted by a cabinet order and wouldn't have to pass through the House of Commons.

The move to decriminalize simple possession has "come from the grassroots up," said Stewart, who pledged to include people with lived experience with illicit drug use as the details of the city's plan to decriminalize are worked out.

"There are some things that I can't control and that is the limits that the federal government would put on any exemption, although I can definitely advocate for what the community thinks should happen." 

He didn't know how long it would take for the federal government to sign off on the city's plan, but Stewart said federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu is a champion of harm reduction and she has the authority to move quickly to grant the request.

There have been more than 1,500 overdose deaths in Vancouver since the public health crisis was declared in April 2016, said Stewart, and 2020 has been the worst year so far. 

Dr. Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, said during the news conference that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the crisis, disrupting and intensifying toxicity in the supply of illicit drugs and interrupting harm reduction and treatment services.

"The substances now on the street are even more toxic than they were before the pandemic," she said.

"It's really crucial that in the midst of responding to the pandemic, we must respond to the worsening opioid overdose crisis."

Daly said decriminalization alone won't solve the crisis, but it would go hand in hand with expanded harm reduction and treatment services, including the province's safe supply program.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry issued a public health order in September that expanded the range of health professionals allowed to prescribe safe alternatives to street drugs for people at risk of overdose.

Daly said her office recommended decriminalization of simple possession in a 2018 report and Henry has also called for the change.

Earlier this year, Premier John Horgan wrote to the prime minister urging Ottawa to take steps toward the decriminalization of simple possession, while the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police also voiced its support for the idea earlier this year.

If Stewart's motion is successful and Ottawa approves, the mayor said there would be an information campaign aimed not only at those who are directly affected by the change, but also at the general public in order to explain how decriminalization would save and improve people's lives across the city.

In May, Vancouver-based Pivot Legal Society, the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and the HIV Legal Network called on the federal government to use the same exemption power that would decriminalize simple possession across the country. 

In a statement commending Stewart's move, the three groups say more than 170 civil society organizations have endorsed that call.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2020.

Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press