Opinion: “Vancouver Model” of decriminalization sets dangerous precedent for drug users

Jun 8, 2021

A recent open letter authored by the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and published by The Mainlander, has spoken out against the “Vancouver Model” of drug decriminalization, calling it dangerous for drug users across Canada.

Specifically, VANDU takes issue with the fact that Vancouver City staff have created the “Vancouver Model”, which is in final submission to Health Canada, without the involvement of drug users.

According to the letter, the decisions which have already been made by the City as part of creating the model have been “alarmingly ill-informed”, while their top-down process has been “fatally flawed”. VANDU made it clear that this effort is coming too late and now that it is moving forward the proposed changes are at risk of actually make the situation worse for illicit drug users in Vancouver, and across Canada if it is used as a precedent.

“We need full decriminalization which means no sanctions, no halfway measures. We need full decriminalization with no threshold, meaning that all small drug possession should be decriminalized,” said VANDU organizer Vince Tao in his interview with City News. “We said that even if we do need thresholds in this plan, they need to be as high as possible to make sure that drug users actually benefit from reduced violence and search from police.”

The proposed thresholds submitted to the federal government included 3 grams for powder cocaine, 2 grams for opioids, 1.5. grams for crystal meth and other amphetamines, and 1 gram for crack cocaine. “We looked at those numbers and we brought them to our membership here at VANDU. The city claims that through the data that they crunched that this is three days worth of use. Our members laughed at that, it was actually closer to a morning’s worth of use for most people,” said Tao.

As such, VANDU demanded a meeting with the Decriminalization Working Group Oversight Committee, and that the Working Group redrafts the threshold amounts currently stipulated in the City’s application, while taking consideration of leadership from VANDU and drug users in the drafting process.

However, these demands were not met by the Working Group, and according to Tao, by the time they were invited to the table, all the major decisions had been made, leaving the organization with no choice but to withdraw.

“After these few weeks of belated consultation, we’re just tired. We can not do this anymore. We’re not being listened to, we’re being tokenized, and as such we need to step out,” Tao said.

Setting the possession threshold too low does not represent the way drug users buy and use drugs, and will not improve their safety. “If this is actually implemented these low thresholds will actually further empower police to profile, and search, and brutalize people in the community. The city says it’s a plan to de-escalate the drug war but if anything, it’s giving more power to VPD to crack down on drug users, it’s re-criminalizing not decriminalization,” said Tao.

According to the coroner’s report, 2020 was the deadliest year for BC in terms of drug overdoses.

Specifically, 1,716 people died due to illicit drug use in 2020, equating to 4.7 deaths a day — a 74% increase compared to 2019.