Vancouver mayor and Health Canada to formally discuss drug decriminalization

Feb 9, 2021

According to a statement from Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, the city’s officials and Health Canada plan to initiate a formal discussion on the city’s plan to decriminalize simple possession of illicit drugs. Currently, Vancouver’s overdose crisis is at its peak, 2020 was the deadliest year so far in terms of drug-related overdose deaths in the city. Accordingly, Stewart has been spearheading the efforts to decriminalize simple possession of illicit drugs in efforts to address the ongoing overdose crisis.

“This is another hopeful and critical milestone on the path toward fully embracing a health-focused approach to substance use in the City of Vancouver,” said Stewart in his statement. “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.”

Earlier in November, Vancouver city council had unanimously approved the motion to propose decriminalization for possession of small amounts illegal to the federal government. If the city’s officials’ efforts are successful, Vancouver would become the first Canadian city to obtain such approval.

Notably, decriminalization means that individuals who are in possession of illicit drugs for personal use would not face legal penalties; however, depending on the specifics of how decriminalization is implemented, they could still be subject to administrative penalties or fines.

Other advocates of decriminalization have expressed hope that Vancouver would be the first of many municipalities to decriminalize small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use. Furthermore, B.C. Premier John Horgan, the Vancouver Police Department and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry have expressed their support for elimination of criminal consequences for possessing small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, led by Vancouver Chief Adam Palmer, also endorsed decriminalization earlier this year.

In her interview with CBC News, Caitlin Shane, a lawyer specializing in drug policy for Pivot Legal Society, stated that she is ‘cautiously optimistic’ about Ottawa’s approval of Vancouver’s application. Shane did express concerns about how the process of decriminalization could work in practice, she advised such a decriminalization plan should be broad and long lasting.

“Street drugs are vastly contaminated at this point and it would be really impractical and difficult to parse out which substances are included and which aren’t,” Shane told CBC News. If approved, decriminalization should include everyone in Vancouver, she said, and not solely those who are deemed to be at risk. Shane also suggested that decriminalization should cover all illicit drugs, not just specific ones.

Shane also expressed concern about the role of law enforcement after the decriminalization of simple possession, since police continue to confiscate drugs from her clients in the Downtown Eastside, even when they are not criminally charged. “That comes with a whole host of other problems, you know, people get their drugs confiscated and then they have to hustle all day to get a new supply and it kind of perpetuates this whole cycle,” she told CBC.

According to Simi Heer, the director of public affairs for the Vancouver Police Department, it is not a general practice to seize illicit drugs from individuals using them, but there are times when they need to be seized.

“For example, if an officer finds drugs while searching someone for a criminal investigation, they are not allowed to give those drugs back,” said Heer. “It’s too early to speculate on what systems need to be in place to make that happen, but that can be determined by health, government and public safety partners working together.”

To officially implement decriminalization of simple possession, Vancouver would need to officially receive a federal exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Currently, it is not clear how much time Health Canada will take to review Vancouver’s request following the discussion.