Mayor Stewart announces plan to decriminalize simple possession of drugs in Vancouver
If approved by the federal government, Vancouver would be the first jurisdiction in Canada to fully embrace a health-focussed approach to substance use.
Vancouver, November 18, 2020 – With overdose deaths still at critical levels, Mayor Kennedy Stewart unveiled a new plan to fully embrace a health-focussed approach to substance use in the City of Vancouver by decriminalizing simple possession of all drugs through a federal health exemption. “Personal possession and use of drugs is not a criminal justice issue, it is a health issue,” said Mayor Stewart. “It is time to end the stigma around substance use, help connect more of our neighbours to health care, and save lives.”
With more than 1,500 deaths in Vancouver since a Provincial Overdose Emergency was declared in April 2016, and an estimated 328 overdose deaths in the City of Vancouver this year to date, 2020 is on track to be the worst year yet for overdoses and Mayor Stewart is calling for a new approach.
“My plan would see Vancouver lead the way as the first Canadian jurisdiction to decriminalize personal possession of illicit substances,” said Mayor Stewart, “Decriminalization is an urgent and necessary next step backed by Premier John Horgan, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Vancouver Coastal Health’s (VCH) Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Patricia Daly.”
Dr. Patricia Daly stressed that by reducing stigma, decriminalization can help to engage vulnerable people into a system of care. “In the 2018 VCH Chief Medical Health Officer’s Report, I recommended decriminalization of personal possession of substances as part of the overall strategy—including prevention, harm reduction, and improvements to the addictions system of care—to address the overdose crisis,” said Dr. Daly. “I support this motion, and should it be approved by council, my office will work with the City of Vancouver and Vancouver Police Department on next steps.”
If passed by Council, the Mayor’s motion would direct the City of Vancouver to write to the federal Ministers of Health, Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, and Justice and Attorney General to request a federal exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to decriminalize personal possession of illicit substances within the City’s boundaries for medical purposes, in order to address urgent public health concerns caused by the overdose crisis and COVID-19.
Supporters of decriminalization also include PIVOT Legal Society, Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, and Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.
Sarah Blyth, Executive Director Overdose Prevention Society and member of Vancouver’s Community Action Team (CAT)
“Mayor Stewart's motion reflects what the community is asking for in order to help end the overdose crisis and save lives. The Overdose Prevention Society supports this motion 100%.”
Donald MacPherson, Executive Director Canadian Drug Policy Coalition
“At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is overwhelming us it is heartening to see Vancouver taking strong leadership on one of the biggest barriers to ending the devastating overdose crisis, the criminalization of people who use drugs. The many harms caused by the criminalization of simple possession of drugs have been well documented in the scientific literature. This action will accelerate movement towards a health and human rights approach to drugs in Canada and facilitate the development of a more comprehensive response to the drug toxicity crisis that is taking the lives of so many in British Columbia.”
Chief Adam Palmer, Vancouver Police Department
“For many years, the VPD has treated substance use and addiction as a public health issue, not as an issue requiring intervention by the criminal justice system. As such, we support decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal consumption and the creation of additional healthcare and community support structures to ensure people get the help they need. The solution is not a simple, singular approach – healthcare, government, and police need to work together to come up with comprehensive health-focused systems and wrap-around support.”
Caitlin Shane, PIVOT Legal Society
“This action will save lives. It’s not a silver bullet—but it’s a critical step toward ending a war that is needlessly killing our communities. Decriminalization is a moral imperative and we encourage other cities and the Province of BC to follow Vancouver’s lead.”
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Full Text of the Motion
- The overdose crisis continues to claim many lives, with 1,536 deaths in Vancouver since a Provincial Overdose Emergency was declared in April 2016, and an estimated 328 overdose deaths in the City of Vancouver this year to date, putting 2020 on track to be the worst year yet;
- The COVID-19 pandemic has further isolated drug users, impacted access to harm reduction services, and fueled greater toxicity within the illicit drug supply;
- Premier Horgan wrote to Prime Minister Trudeau on July 20, 2020 asking the federal government to decriminalize personal possession of all psychoactive substances, as 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;
- The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police agree that decriminalization of simple possession is an effective way to reduce public health and public safety harms associated with substance use and endorses alternatives to criminal sanctions for simple possession of illicit drugs;
- Vancouver Coastal Health’s (VCH) Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Patricia Daly and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry have called for the decriminalization of personal possession of illegal substances, as an urgent and necessary next step to addressing the overdose crisis;
- The PIVOT Legal Society, Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, and Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network recently wrote to the Federal Ministers of Health, Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, and Justice and Attorney General to urge their government to use all available tools to decriminalize simple drug possession; and
- Decriminalization is a step toward addressing anti-Black, anti-poor, and colonial policing at this time; and;
Vancouver is in a unique position to move forward with decriminalization within its municipal borders, in a coordinated partnership with the Vancouver Police Department and Vancouver Coastal Health Authority.
Therefore be it resolved that Council direct the Mayor to:
Consult with the VCH Chief Medical Health Officer and then write to the federal Ministers of Health, Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, and Justice and Attorney General to request a federal exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to decriminalize personal possession of illicit substances within the City’s boundaries for medical purposes, in order to address urgent public health concerns caused by the overdose crisis and COVID-19;
Write to all other B.C. local governments urging them to consider pursuing a federal exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to decriminalize personal possession of illicit substances within their municipal boundaries; and
- Write to the Union of BC Municipalities and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities seeking their support for decriminalizing personal possession of illicit substances.