VANDU criticizes Vancouver’s new drug policy, says it is not enough

Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users continue to lobby for safe and regulated supply of drugs

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This is a photo of the SFU Vancouver Harbour Centre campus. It is an aerial photo overlooking the harbour.
PHOTO: Angie / Unsplash

By: Aditi Dwivedi, News Writer

The BC government was granted an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act by Health Canada, to decriminalize the possession of certain illegal drugs from January 31, 2023 to January 31, 2026. The decriminalization is a critical step in BC’s fight against the growing opioid crisis, homelessness, and overdose deaths in the province.

This exemption allows adults 18 years or older in BC to carry certain illegal drugs for personal use without facing criminal charges or being arrested. These eligible drugs include crack, powder cocaine, methamphetamine (meth), ecstasy (MDMA), and opioids — heroin, morphine, fentanyl. However, individuals carrying more than a combined total of 2.5 grams will be subject to criminal charges and the drugs will be confiscated.

The Peak had an interview with the Vancouver Area Network of Drugs Users (VANDU) to learn how this decision impacts people who use drugs. Since 2016, the overdose crisis has resulted in over 11,000 deaths in BC. VANDU is a collection of people in the Vancouver community who have formerly used or currently use drugs. They fight against stigma, and work to improve the lives of people who use drugs through user-based peer support and education.

David Hamm, a member of the Board of Directors of VANDU spoke to The Peak about how they “have been lobbying for this move since the beginning of VANDU, 25 years ago.” Hamm added that while the step is long overdue for the ongoing opioid crisis, it is a step in the right direction. He said VANDU’s “efforts have finally been taken seriously [ . . . ] to do something that will help decriminalize the population of drug users, but we do find it woefully lacking.”

According to Hamm, a survey conducted by VANDU concluded that 4.5 grams of each substance would be a more appropriate amount than the current limit of 2.5 grams of collective amount. He explained, “The reason people have larger amounts on them is because they only want to go out as little as possible to get their substances and also because [ . . . ] if you get more of it, then you get a better price on it.” He added, “Navigating through the community, and the drugs, for a person using drugs could be a very trying experience, especially for the elderly, and there are a lot of people that experience violence too.” By increasing the number of grams an individual can carry, it reduces the risks to their economic and personal safety.

According to Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner at the BC Coroners Service, toxicology data “confirms that the drug supply in British Columbia is increasingly volatile and life-threatening.” Hamm believes that decriminalizing toxic substances is not going to help the overdose crisis. Instead, he noted the resources being used for decriminalization should have gone towards providing a safe supply of opioid substances to save users from the “really toxic supply out there.” 

While Hamm mentioned people who use drugs still have to deal with backlash and stigma from the community, there have been instances of support. “A heartwarming gesture was put out by the public when we heard about losing some funding for our art program [ . . . ] in one evening we received twice the amount of money that we were gonna receive from the city.”

The VANDU art program is a series of events which encourages vulnerable people who use drugs to engage with art projects, like making banners commemorating the lives lost to toxic drugs, with the help of a facilitator. This year the Vancouver City Council voted against the allocation of $7,500 as an art grant to VANDU citing the organization’s failure to “deliver what it promised when it was given a sizable grant to clean up East Hastings Street last year.”

According to Hamm, the overall lack of government action against the opioid crisis is worsening the crisis. “This emergency has been going on for over seven years now [ . . . ] I can’t picture any other situation where there would be such a lack of action [ . . . ] they would do anything, use any resources, to tackle any other kind of emergency, but because it’s drug users, they have not been willing to do what it takes, which is having a regulated safe supply by the government.

For more information about VANDU’s community engagement activities, visit their website.

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