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Vancouver, Feds Take Next Step Towards Decriminalizing Illicit Drug Possession

City council unanimously passed a motion to decriminalize simple possession of illicit drugs in November.
A fentanyl user displays a "safe supply" of opioid alternatives, including morphine pills, provided by the local health unit to combat overdoses due to poisonous additives in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver on April 6, 2020.
A fentanyl user displays a "safe supply" of opioid alternatives, including morphine pills, provided by the local health unit to combat overdoses due to poisonous additives in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver on April 6, 2020.

OTTAWA — The City of Vancouver has received a signal from the federal government to start formal discussions around its plan to decriminalize simple possession of illicit drugs.

In a statement Wednesday, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart called the step “another hopeful and critical milestone on the path towards fully embracing a health-focussed approach to substance use” in the city.

“This news comes at a time when the overdose crisis in our city has never been worse, with a person-a-day still needlessly dying due to poison drugs,” Stewart said.

“While 2020 looks to be the deadliest year on record for overdoses, I am hopeful that this news from Ottawa can mean that 2021 will be different.”

He thanked federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu for her “positive response” to the request.

Watch: COVID-19 in Canada, one year later. Story continues below video.

Though the municipal and federal governments are only at the start of formal discussions, Kennedy’s spokesperson told HuffPost Canada there’s no set timeline for how long the process will take.

“The mayor wants them to begin [as soon as possible],” said Alvin Singh.

He explained the first step will be to create an initial framework proposal with consultation from Vancouver Coastal Health, the Vancouver Police Department, community groups and advocates, and individuals with lived experiences.

“Then, we’ll be able to go back and forth with Health Canada,” Singh said. “So sadly, not a lot of detail for timing, but we want it to happen quickly and there is a lot of expertise in Vancouver that will allow us to move towards a framework proposal in short order.”

In a copy of a Monday email provided to HuffPost, Hajdu told Kennedy she is “committed to our continued work to identify options that respond to the local needs of the City of Vancouver.”

She also expressed optimism the partnership will address racial disparities such as the disproportionate representation of racialized people in the criminal justice system

“Recent statistics show that the rate of Indigenous adults admitted to federal custody was six times higher than the rate of non-Indigenous adults, while the rate for Black inmates was two times higher than for non-Black inmates,” the email read.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the impacts of the opioid crisis, and we cannot forget how it has impacted thousands of families in communities across Canada.”

- Cole Davidson, spokesperson for Health Minister Patty Hajdu

HuffPost asked Health Canada for more details about the expected timeline for discussions. A spokesperson for the health minister did not provide additional details.

“Substance use is a health issue, not a moral one,” Cole Davidson, Hajdu’s spokesperson, said in an email. “The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the impacts of the opioid crisis, and we cannot forget how it has impacted thousands of families in communities across Canada. We have lost too many Canadians to overdoses and all levels of government must redouble efforts to save lives.

“Our approach has focused on harm reduction, including supporting the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act, funding programs to divert people who use drugs from the criminal justice system, and enhancing access to safe consumption sites, safer supply, and expanded treatment options.”

The development comes seven months after British Columbia Premier John Horgan wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asking the federal government to decriminalize personal possession of all psychoactive substances to help eliminate the stigma around drug use.

Advocates have urged politicians to give more attention to the issue given the alarming number of overdose-related deaths linked to the opioid crisis.

Vancouver city councillors unanimously passed a motion in November to ask the federal government to decriminalize small, personal possession of illicit drugs.

The motion called it a “necessary next step to reduce the stigma associated with substance use and encourage people at risk to access lifesaving harm reduction and treatment services.” That month, the city reported 329 overdose deaths in the year to date.

Vancouver following process that led to InSite approval

The City of Vancouver is seeking a federal exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which would allow substance use to be treated as a health issue rather than a criminal justice one.

It traces the same steps the city took to obtain a federal exemption to provisions of the act related to trafficking in 2003. That exemption, granted under Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government, allowed Vancouver to open North America’s first supervised injection site, InSite, in the Downtown Eastside.

Advocates fought for the opening of the facility to reduce needle-sharing and overdose deaths seen in the ’90s. Drug policy experts credited a changed political environment in 2002 and the community activism connections of a newly elected mayor as conduits to the opening of InSite.

There are signs of that sea change happening on the issue of decriminalizing simple possession of illicit drugs. Following in Vancouver’s footsteps, Montreal city council passed a motion Tuesday to ask the federal government to decriminalize simple drug possession.

Montréal, Québec, Canada, January 4, 2016. -- Montreal is seen from Mount Royal (mont Royal) when the night is coming. (Photo by Thierry Tronnel/Corbis via Getty Images)
Montréal, Québec, Canada, January 4, 2016. -- Montreal is seen from Mount Royal (mont Royal) when the night is coming. (Photo by Thierry Tronnel/Corbis via Getty Images)

The current federal government has previously signalled that they have “no plans” to decriminalize illicit drugs, despite the issue being ranked as a top policy item by grassroots members of the Liberal Party at the party’s 2018 convention.

Police chiefs back push to decriminalize simple possession

Last year, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) released a report asking for substance use to be recognized as a public health issue.

The consensus from police chiefs is that criminally charging substance users with simple possession of illicit drugs won’t save lives.

But decriminalizing illicit drugs is only one piece of the puzzle, the report said, adding that ensuring and monitoring safe supply is another.

“While decriminalization can reduce some harms for people who use drugs, they are still dependent on an illegal market where the contents and strength of drugs are unknown,” states the CACP report.

“The unregulated drug supply in Canada has become toxic, leading to overdoses and death. Determining how best to regulate all drugs would be complicated and take time.”

In August, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada marked a shift by issuing a new directive for federal prosecutors to only focus on the “most serious cases raising public safety concerns for prosecution and to otherwise pursue suitable alternative measures and diversion from the criminal justice system for simple possession cases.”

The deaths of more than 17,600 people between January 2016 and June 2020 have been linked to apparent opioid toxicity, according to government data. A majority of these deaths have been accidental and linked to fentanyl.

It’s been nearly five years since a spike in opioid-related overdose deaths in B.C. prompted the province to declare a public health emergency in April 2016.

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