Should Vancouver city council push to decriminalize illicit drugs?

Opposition councillors call for debate on controversial policy shift

12th and Cambie

Here’s a simple question that may bring a complicated answer: Do you think it’s a good idea to decriminalize the personal possession of all illicit drugs?

While you’re thinking about your answer, let me catch you up on the City of Vancouver’s response, which was buried deep down in a March 9 news release regarding the opioid crisis.

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It’s aimed at the provincial and federal governments, and goes like this: “Convene a multi-sectoral task force to implement immediate decriminalization of personal possession of illicit drugs.”

You read that right —“immediate decriminalization.”

Wow, right?

Kinda, sorta.

“Kinda” because I don’t know of any other city in Canada that is formally pushing for decriminalization, which typically means police not arresting a person with a flap of heroin or some other drug.

“Sorta” because I’ve heard the mayor and some councillors say over the years that Vancouver needs a different approach to keeping drug users alive.

I’ve also heard Dr. Patricia Daly, the chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, and other public health docs call for the legalization and regulation of all psychoactive substances. That includes heroin and cocaine.

In fact, public health docs have been all over this file for years, making recommendation after recommendation to get the feds to change the country’s drug laws. Evidence of that is contained in a report from 2011 and in one I hunted down from 1998 titled, “A comprehensive public health approach to the problem of illicit drug use.”

Here’s a recommendation from that report: “Possession of small quantities of controlled drugs should be decriminalized. Importing and trafficking offences should remain, and enforcement of them be improved.”

The same year the report was published, 191 people died of a drug overdose in Vancouver. At the time, the number of deaths was considered unprecedented, with high purity heroin the culprit. Now it’s fentanyl doing the damage, with 365 people dying in Vancouver last year.

So here we go again with a push for decriminalization, except this time it’s the city – not public health docs – behind the recommendation.

Which is significant on a few incomprehensible levels: one, that such a bold policy move was added as a one-liner in a city news release; and, two, that the current city council and previous councils were aware of repeated calls for decriminalization from public health docs, but never lobbied the feds to change drug laws.

The obvious reason for the latest move is connected to the hundreds of overdose deaths in Vancouver over the last two years. You could also surmise the majority of the ruling Vision Vancouver councillors, along with Mayor Gregor Robertson, have nothing to lose politically because they are not seeking re-election this fall.

Rather than speculate on the reason for the move, I spoke to Vision Coun. Kerry Jang, who downplayed the one-liner in the city’s news release, saying decriminalization “is a fundamental health policy we’ve always supported since the health officers came out with it.”

Who is “we?”

It’s a position, he continued, that various city task forces and working groups have taken over the years related to drug use and mental health. Recently, federal Liberal MPs and national NDP leader Jasmeet Singh also called for removing criminal penalties for personal possession of illicit drugs.

“I think people are seeing it as a new position, but it’s not,” Jang said. “It’s simply endorsing what the health officers have suggested.”

But why, I asked him, hasn’t council debated decriminalization and adopted it -- or rejected it -- as policy? Or sent a strongly worded recommendation to the federal government?

After all, I said, council has previously lobbied provincial and federal governments for more money for housing and transit. 

So why not make some noise on decriminalization?

“If they want to debate it tomorrow, bring it on,” said Jang, when told NPA Coun. George Affleck and Green Party Coun. Adriane Carr were surprised to see the city’s call for decriminalization in a news release. “It’s basic public health policy. It’s a principle.”

Added Jang: "Why do I need to stand up [in council] and jump up and down when our partners in the federal and provincal governments are actually moving in that direction?"

For the record, Carr told me she was “on board” with decriminalization and Affleck said he was “probably somewhat supportive of the idea.” But both said council first needs to hear from the public and then have some discussion and debate at city hall.

Carr: “I agree with Dr. Daly that this is the approach we have to take, but council hasn’t come to a conclusion. We’ve never voted on that. It would be smart to have the council vote behind that, and backing that up.”

Affleck: “This is not proper governance. I’m disappointed in the mayor and staff. It’s not cool for the people of the city to hear about this and have no discussion or debate in council.”

As for the Vancouver Police Department, some might argue decriminalization of personal possession of illicit drugs is already in effect in Vancouver, particularly in the alleys of the Downtown Eastside.

I emailed the VPD’s two media liaison officers Tuesday morning -- and copied a senior member of the department’s major crimes section in the email -- to get their reaction to the city’s call for decriminalization.

As of posting this piece Thursday afternoon, I hadn’t heard a peep.

In the meantime, expect city staff to provide an update on the opioid crisis to council in April. Maybe then we’ll hear from the cops and what all 11 members of council have to say about turning upside down the Criminal Code of Canada and decriminalizing illicit drugs.

Update: Received a response Friday morning from VPD Sgt. Jason Robillard. Here's what he said:

"Regarding the city's recommendation you reference, the VPD would welcome an invite to be part of the multi-sectoral task force and we look forward to participating in further discussion on the issue. As you know, we have a progressive drug policy that supports harm reduction and includes enforcement strategies that don't target individual drug users [i.e. personal possession of illicit drugs]. Our officers would be concerned with personal use and possession if the illicit drug use interferes with public safety. For example, if there was drug use near a school or a playground."

Added Robillard: "The number of charges recommended by the VPD for possession of a controlled substance without the presence of another substantive offence [break and enter/assault/possession of stolen property, etc.] is historically very low. Our enforcement efforts target those who manufacture and distribute opioids and other harmful drugs. We are of the view that decrminalization of personal possession of illicit drugs alone would not address the issue of opioid deaths since the supply would still be controlled by the illicit market."

mhowell@vancourier.com

@Howellings

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