VANDU calls to revise drug decriminalization policies

The City of Vancouver’s model will set precedent for all of Canada

Photo courtesy of Jean Swanson via Twitter

Written by: Karissa Ketter, News Writer

The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and allied organizations held a press conference on May 11, 2021 calling on the City of Vancouver and Canada’s federal government to revise their newest drug policy proposal. The new Vancouver model was recently submitted to Ottawa for approval and asks for Vancouver to be exempt from the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. It’s described as a form of decriminalization that takes a health-care-based approach. 

The City of Vancouver proposes individuals be able to hold a certain amount of illegal drugs without being charged for simple possession. This model includes a voluntary referral system through which drug users can access support services if they choose.

“Decriminalizing the simple possession of drugs should help to destigmatize drug users. This stigma often prevents them from seeking help,” according to the City of Vancouver.

Scott Berstein, director of policy for the Canadian Policy Drug Coalition, said the current model has “serious flaws that will undermine its intended health and social benefits.”

One of the issues outlined includes the “lack of input from people who use drugs. Because of this, the Vancouver model fails to reflect the realities of current drug use,” said Berstein. 

Caitlin Shane from Pivot Legal Society said, “The people who most need the benefit of decriminalization — folks who are poor, unhoused, racialized — these are the folks who are remaining unprotected and overcriminalized [in the new model].”

Another flaw is individuals carrying “unrealistically low”  amounts of the drug. These thresholds “seriously undercut the intended benefits of the current proposal because [they’re] not based on reality,.” said Berstein.

According to Shane, the City of Vancouver also said the data they used in creating the drug threshold policies was out of date.

“Basing a precedent setting based on bad data is reckless, anti-scientific, and dangerous,” said Berstein.

The conference presentation noted concerns with the Vancouver Police Department (VPD)’s involvement. “This is a conflict of interest as the whole point of decriminalization is to remove police from the process, not bring them closer to it,” said Berstein.

VANDU called on the City of Vancouver and Canada’s federal government “to meaningfully engage people with lived experience and allow them to co-develop a vision for decriminalization.” They asked to update thresholds to accurately reflect drug use patterns and terminate VPD relations in regards to drug policies. 

“There is no legal requirement that police or law enforcement be anywhere involved in this process and yet the Vancouver Police Department has been given the final say,” said Shane. 

“Police have demonstrated time and again that they are far more invested economically and otherwise in protecting their own power, budgets, and image over and above the lives of people who use drugs.”

Kali Sedgemore, an outreach worker, also addressed concerns with how the Vancouver model disproportionately affects youth, as it allows the VPD to continue intervening with youth in Diversion Pathway programs. The voluntary referral system to support services for adults is not made available to young people at this time.

“We all know that means involuntary care [ . . . ] Youth don’t need involuntary care, they need harm reduction support,” said Sedgemore. Involuntary care is used when offenders refuse or are too ill to legally consent for rehabilitation, forcing them to be admitted.

The City of Vancouver reports that harm reduction strategies such as prevention and treatment strategies have produced an increase in people seeking treatment. 

Sedgemore also noted concerns with how the Vancouver model would increase risk for Black and Indigenous youth. The Vancouver Sun reports that 2014 data shows Black and Indigenous people are overrepresented in drug use data. 

Harsha Walia, executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association added, “Racial inequalities exist in many aspects of Canadian society, including the economy, education, health care and more.” She noted the over-criminalization of Black and Indigenous people in BC as “both a symptom and a cause of systemic racism.”

The SFSS noted this concern in their BC Police Act Review in April 2021. They said youth who use drugs “have experienced disproportionate harm due to policing instead of receiving support.” They also encourage transformative justice in BC, “challenging the notion that increasing police presence and practices will increase safety.”

When asked if VANDU has seen any sign of hope of working with the City of Vancouver to revise their policies, host of the Crackdown podcast Garth Mullins said, “I haven’t seen any yet.”

According to CBC, Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart said that there is not enough time to revise the new drug decriminalization policies before the federal election. 

In response to the policy’s critiques, the City of Vancouver issued a statement: “The Vancouver model, as a whole, takes a leading approach to decriminalization that is well considered, compassionate, and based on local data, with the goal of reducing stigma and transitioning to a fully health-focused approach to substance use.

“The exemption we are seeking is the first of its kind in Canada [ . . . ] We respect the views of VANDU and other groups, welcome their continued advocacy, and hope we will continue to work together to update the model.”

Mullins said, “Decriminalization is not enough — we need to get [a] safe supply because we have had record overdoses in this past year.” However, “removing police is key — it’s an important first step.” By removing the police from the lives of people who use drugs, it “invites us to rejoin society.”