Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart made an announcement today, proposing the decriminalization of all drugs. The Mayor announced his intention to propose this motion to decriminalize all drugs to the City Council at next Tuesday’s meeting. If the motion is passed, the city will seek a Section 56 Exemption from the Federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act; making Vancouver the first Canadian city to decriminalize illicit substances.
Why now the mayor wants to pass this motion to decriminalize all drugs?
“Personal possession and use of drugs is not a criminal justice issue,” Stewart said. “It’s a health issue.” In 2008, the opiate crisis took off as overdose rates began to rise. In 2016, the opiate crisis was declared a public health emergency. Since the beginning of the pandemic, overdose rates have been higher than ever. In order to address the increasing severity of the situation, a new strategy is needed, harm reduction. The idea is that if you remove the legal ramifications, you can remove the shame that prevents people from getting help. Seeing recent changes in Oregon prompted a call for change.
During the US election earlier this month, Oregon updated their laws surrounding drug use. Groundbreaking legislation became law, decriminalizing the personal use of all illicit drugs and legalizing medicinal psilocybin, also known as magic mushrooms. In addition, a new bill was passed directing all the sales tax from recreational cannabis into programs that support harm reduction. If an Oregon cop comes across someone using heroin, that person instantly becomes eligible for free harm reduction services. If the user doesn’t want help, they get a $100 ticket but no criminal charges.
With support from Premier John Horgan, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, and Vancouver Coastal Health Chief Medical Health Officer, Dr. Patricia Daly, Mayor Kenneth Stewart is moving forward. On November 24th, 2020, the city council will vote to seek a section 56 exemption. Traditionally, this exemption has been used to pave the legal road for programs such as safe injection sites. Section 56 of The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act gives our Health Minister the ability to grant exemptions; so long as they are deemed necessary for medical, scientific purposes, and/or public interest. According to Vancouver’s Mayor, this action is long overdue.
What would this motion to decriminalize all drugs for Vancouver mean?
Losing the war on drugs has prompted the need for a different approach and criminal charges will not be a part of it. According to VPD police chief Adam Palmer, “Being addicted to a controlled substance is not a crime and should not be treated as such.” If decriminalization happens, making and selling illicit drugs will still be illegal but possession of personal amounts will not result in criminal liability. Vancouver still has far to go before decriminalization could become reality but today’s announcement marked a step in step in a new direction.