by Carter Hemion, Staff Writer

Vancouver is currently pushing to be the first Canadian city to decriminalize drug possession. Unfortunately, this initiative falls short in addressing community needs and is particularly unfavourable for Vancouver’s youth.  

Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP) advocate for youth and address substance use through a human rights and health concern perspective rather than one of criminality. Chair of the Vancouver Chapter of CSSDP Samara Mayer shared further information with The Peak on what the “Vancouver model of drug decriminalization may mean for youth and the CSSDP’s concerns with this new initiative


The initiative’s changes

The City of Vancouver’s initiative seeks to abolish “criminal sanctions for ‘simple possession’ drugs.” This means adults in possession of three days or less worth of drugs will not face legal penalties. While it is a beginning in decriminalizing drug use and harm reduction, various stakeholders have raised concerns over how the “Vancouver model” falls short. 

Mayer fears this initiative may “[make] punitive drug policies worse.” Mayer cited some dangers of the policy can be the “lack of meaningful and equitable engagement of those directly affected by decriminalization (people who use drugs), threshold amounts that are far too low, and that police have dictated parameters of decriminalization.” Mayer is also concerned that “[the] low thresholds and discretion given to police over enforcement in the Vancouver model could actually worsen the criminalization of people who use drugs and [set] a dangerous precedent for other jurisdictions.”

Along with the CSSDP, groups like Pivot Legal, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), the HIV Legal Network, and others are taking action to communicate concerns to Health Canada.


Current challenges for youth

Youth who use drugs are more stigmatized than adults. While public opinion moves towards decriminalizing drug use for adults and harm reduction methods for safe drug supplies, these progressive ideas do not apply to youth. Young people are still being stigmatized and penalized for drug use without being offered the same support adults are. 

Because of their age, youth face more obstacles in seeking support for their drug use because “there is less funding for youth-specific services, fewer health and social services that create safer spaces for young people who use drugs, and an overall deficit of equitable youth engagement in drug policy and programming development.” 

Mayer recalls the push for Bill 22, which intends to legalise hospitalizing youth involuntarily after overdoses, and explains the harm it would cause. Mayer continues that “[this bill] would [deter] them from seeking help during an overdose, [increase] their risk of overdose after being ‘stabilized’ (i.e. forced detox), and [erode] trust in health care systems.” The CSSDP hopes to see more accessible resources for youth in the place of harmful legislation like this.


Enforcement, decriminalization, and legalization

Under the proposed policy, the Vancouver model of decriminalization does not include youth under 19. More specifically, this initiative has been developed closely with the VPD with different plans for young people, who they refer to as “young offenders.” Mayer clarifies that, instead of decriminalizing drugs for youth under 19, “VPD will support ‘young offenders’ through offering ‘diversion pathways,’ such as involuntary treatment.” This is especially problematic because police have historically harmed youth who use drugs. 

Further, the CSSDP is concerned about how the policies are unrealistic for youth. The policies were clearly developed without consulting those who will be most affected and without street-involved youth. This is clear in the “unreasonably low proposed drug thresholds” because youth are more likely to buy drugs in larger quantities than adults. This tends to be more than  a three-day supply so that it can be purchased in a single trip and be more easily shared. 

The CSSDP hopes for future legalization of drugs, but in the meantime focuses on ways to make drug use safer. One way that the CSSDP and other local groups, like The Coalition of Peers Dismantling the Drug War (CPDDW), focus on harm reduction methods includes providing safe supply. Giving youth access to safer supply includes “providing drugs of known quality and dose through a prescribing health care provider.” This is easier said than done; unfortunately, there are few youth-centred services with safer supply, the drugs available may not match the community’s demands, and services may require drug-using people to take their dose under supervision. Some sources consider access to safe supply a kind of “nascent legalization.”

Under the current legal policies and enforcement, over 7000 people died in 10 years, which makes changes to legislation imperative to saving lives in Vancouver.  


Addressing the issues

Mayer offers a handful of potential solutions to where the Vancouver model falls short. Mayer says youth should “have a meaningful say in drug policy reform, including in the application to decriminalize personal possession of drugs.” 

Mayer recommends rejecting Bill C-22 because it “violates the spirit of decriminalization and Good Samaritan Laws, and will further discourage youth from seeking medical help during an overdose, which would increase risk of death in youth.”

In future policies, Mayer says it is necessary to “disinvest from failed punitive approaches to drug use. This includes law enforcement and coercive ‘diversionary’ measures (e.g. involuntary treatment) that disproportionately target and harm Black, Indigenous, and racialized youth, youth in care, youth with mental health concerns and those identifying as queer/gender diverse.” 

For investing in youth safety, Mayer believes in “opening safe consumption/overdose prevention sites exclusively for youth [ . . . that are] where youth will use them, and are inclusive to their specific needs. This would prevent youth from using alone, outdoors in public, or other unsafe places, as many youth don’t feel safe and could potentially end up being targeted by police.” 


Why this policy matters

This initiative, if approved by Health Canada, would make Vancouver the first Canadian city to decriminalize drug use. Because it is a progressive policy, it “will provide a framework for future decriminalization models in Canada and in the US.” Already, it has had influence this year on Montreal voting to pursue decriminalization policies. Mayer warns that “[if] done wrong, we risk laying a bad foundation on which to build a more progressive health and human rights approach to substance use.” It is critical that Vancouver makes the right choices in prioritizing drug users and advocacy groups; our youth’s lives depend on it.


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