Vancouver’s Advancing Drug Decriminalization Plan Sparks Controversies

May 11, 2021

People who use drugs weren’t given a voice in Vancouver’s most recent step towards decriminalization, according to a coalition of harm reduction groups. The organizations also say that the proposed permitted quantities are too low, and they criticize the city for giving the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) too large of a say in creating the Vancouver model.

British Columbia’s largest city is seeking an exemption from Health Canada that would effectively decriminalize the possession of illicit substances for personal use. It drafted a document, released April 8, that outlined “thresholds” for four commonly used drug types: opioids, crack cocaine, powder cocaine and amphetamines.

Under this proposal, if a person possesses an amount of drugs at or under the threshold, the police can neither seize the drugs, nor charge the person. If the quantity of drugs exceeds the threshold, the police can use their discretion and may take further legal or investigative action, or not.

The city set the proposed thresholds to represent, roughly, three days’ worth of each drug type. It recommends the limits of 2 grams of opioids, 3 grams of cocaine, 1 gram of crack and 1.5 grams of amphetamine.

But the coalition—comprising a few dozen local and national Indigenous, civil liberties and harm reduction organizations—says that these amounts could be too low for many people.

“If thresholds are too low, it could lead to people needing to buy more often, increasing their potential exposure to COVID-19.”

Scott Bernstein, director of policy for the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, one of the groups involved, said that the suggested thresholds are flawed because they were made using outdated data about drug consumption. Many of the studies used in the paper are three years old and Vancouverites’ drug use could have changed a great deal since, he told Filter.

The presence of fentanyl and its analogs has seen people’s tolerance increase, he noted. The COVID-19 pandemic may also be changing consumption patterns. Some people might purchase drugs less frequently but in larger quantities, to reduce contact with others.

“What was the average or maximum consumption of somebody three years ago is radically different from what we have today,” Bernstein said, adding that if the thresholds are too low, it could lead to people needing to buy more often, increasing their potential exposure to COVID-19.

If a police officer came across a person possessing an amount of drugs higher than the threshold, they could still hassle the person or confiscate their drugs, he added. And if it looks like the person is attempting to sell the drugs—like if they were carrying a larger amount and a scale—they could still be charged with possession for the purpose of trafficking.

Bernstein said he wasn’t sure where thresholds should be set, but that they should be “exceedingly high,” considering that one person’s three-day supply is another person’s morning supply.

“They should just go by whatever someone says their personal amount is, and just trust that.”

Kali Sedgemore—a peer supervisor and outreach worker, and the president of Coalition of Peers Dismantling the Drug War, another coalition group—agreed that the levels are set too low. Further, they noted that the proposal doesn’t include any youth-specific provisions, and that people under the age of 19 could potentially still be charged for possession levels that would be decriminalized for older people.  

“They should not have the threshold amounts. They should just go by whatever someone says their personal amount is, and just trust that,” they told Filter.

Both Sedgemore and Bernstein pointed out that the process of drafting this proposal did not include people with lived or living experience of using illicit drugs. It did, however, include members of the VPD. “It’s just not the proper way to do it,” Sedgemore said. 

Sedgemore said that the process should have consulted with people who use drugs, including this community’s voices, knowledge and experience in the decision-making. 

According to Bernstein, the coalition is concerned that the VPD might have had too much say in setting the thresholds, and having the police involved in the decision-making processes seems counterproductive. He also noted that Health Canada likely would not sign onto a plan that did not involve the police, however. 

“I don’t understand why the police are having such a big say.”

“I understand the politics of it, but I don’t understand it in practice,” he said. “Really, we would have liked to see this process driven by people with lived experience, and a public health viewpoint, not police. I don’t understand why the police are having such a big say.”

Ted Bruce, a public health consultant and the project lead for the city’s decriminalization bid, recognizes some of the issues the coalition outlined. However, he told Filter that the city was trying to get it done quickly. 

This process began only last November when the city passed a resolution to apply to Health Canada’s decriminalization exemption. Compared to decriminalization, drug prosecutions have a long history—Canada’s Opium Act of 1908, for instance. Moving away from that is a tricky prospect, Bruce said.

People who use drugs or have lived experience were involved in some capacity in an earlier stage of this process, he added. Prior to the April 8 proposal, the city released one on March 1, which was more of an outline of the model. This document drew on work done by Vancouver’s Community Action Team, which includes people who use drugs. 

But Bruce conceded that this population was not thoroughly included in the April 8 paper. “There could have been more [consultations], certainly,” he said, adding that, at the beginning of the process, Health Canada indicated that the exemption would need to address any of the concerns the VPD would have. (Health Canada did not respond to Filter‘s request for comment on this condition by publication time.)

Bruce confirmed that, now, the effort is engaging in consultations with people who use drugs prior to releasing its next proposal. However, Sedgemore said they’re not totally sure what the feedback is likely to achieve. 

“We’re hoping it will reduce the fear of people seeking out help.”

Burce also accepted the coalition’s concern of regarding an underestimation in the data that the city’s report uses, meaning that the thresholds don’t protect the people who use the highest amount of drugs within the city. However, he emphasized that the police can use their discretion when dealing with amounts over the threshold, that Vancouver already has “de facto” decriminalization for personal possession, and that police charge people with it infrequently. Decriminalization would just codify this, he said. 

Bruce also pointed out some of the benefits of the approach. For example, when dealing with sub-threshold amounts, cops can’t take drugs away from people. Largely, confiscating drugs just results in the person going out and grabbing more. Right now, the stigma surrounding drug use can cause people to avoid being open with their families or seeking help—and doing drugs clandestinely and alone adds risks, as no one’s around to reverse an overdose or call an ambulance. Vancouver decriminalizing drugs might help reduce this stigma.  

“We’re hoping it will reduce the fear of people seeking out help,” Bruce said. 

However, decriminalization is only one aspect of combatting Vancouver’s overdose crisis, Bruce said. He suggested safe supply and comprehensive housing support as two other tactics.

Vancouver is working on a third proposal, following the March 1 and April 8 papers, as part of its effort to get the Health Canada exemption. The new document will include a communication strategy, and other pieces of evidence to show that Vancouver can successfully implement decriminalization. It will also outline threshold amounts for other drugs, like MDMA. Vancouver will submit this document on May 28 and, Bruce said, will likely hear back from Health Canada in a matter of weeks.

Vancouver has a long history of drug policy and harm reduction innovations, famously opening North America’s first sanctioned safe consumption site in 2003, for example, and hosting waves of forward-thinking activism. What happens in the Vancouver model could have broader ramifications for the decriminalization movement, as other cities or provinces may take cues if they decide to petition for the Health Canada exemption.

According to Sedgemore, if Vancouver does it “properly,” and includes more people with lived experience, this could be a good thing. But, Bernstein said, the inverse could also end up being true.

“If Vancouver designs a bad system, so be it—if it was just staying here,” he said. “The problem is we think … this could form a precedent around the actual substance of what it looks like, and also the process.” 



Photograph of police in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside by GoToVan via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

Doug Johnson

Doug is a writer, editor and journalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark Magazine, New Scientist and Hakai, among others. He lives in Alberta, Canada.

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