B.C. mayors say Ottawa’s plan to relax drug possession penalties not enough to help opioid crisis

Two British Columbia mayors bearing witness to the horrific impact a toxic drug supply is having on their communities are calling on Ottawa to do more than reduce penalties for drug crimes — saying bolder moves are needed to tackle a national overdose crisis that has killed more than 20,000 Canadians since 2016.

On Feb. 18, Federal Justice Minister and Attorney General, David Lametti, introduced Bill C-22, which, if it passes, will repeal mandatory minimum penalties for certain drug offences.

While Lametti says the focus of C-22 is to reduce the number of Black and Indigenous people being arrested and incarcerated for drug crimes, the mayors of Vancouver and Prince George say the proposed changes to the Criminal Code, while welcomed, do not go far enough.

“I do think the bill could have gone further when it comes to decriminalization,” said Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, speaking Monday on CBC’s The Early Edition

Demands to decriminalize

In November, Vancouver City Council unanimously approved a motion to put the idea of decriminalization for possession of small amounts of drugs forward to the federal government. The decision was made with, on average, one person a day dying in the city from toxic street drugs, according to the mayor.

Stewart said the proposed legislation, which would divert non-violent drug offenders away from incarceration and into addictions treatment, would not have much of an impact in Vancouver, where the mayor said city police only recommended about six possession charges in 2020 anyway. 

A rose in memory of those lost to the opioid crisis is pictured at the intersection of East Hastings Street and Main Street in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, British Columbia on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

That same year, over 1,700 British Columbians were killed by illicit drugs.

“I really think the federal and provincial governments need to get a grip on what is happening to our communities right across the province,” said Stewart.

Lametti, also speaking on The Early Edition Monday, called the situation complex and that C-22 was never supposed to be a panacea.

“It was meant to solve another problem,” he said, adding the drug crisis is “a larger debate with other issues that, frankly, didn’t come into the considerations that I was looking at for this particular bill.” 

Services lacking

Lametti said the government will be working with the provinces to provide financial support to bolster community programs so there are adequate rehabilitation options for drug offenders that would otherwise be incarcerated.

This is something Lori Ackerman, the mayor of Fort St. John, says is desperately needed in northern B.C., where overdose deaths have spiked.

Measured by health authority, the highest rates of deaths in 2020 were in the Northern Health and Vancouver Coastal Health regions, with 44 and 38 deaths per 100,000 people respectively, according to the B.C. Coroners Service.

Justice Minister David Lametti tabled legislation Feb. 18 that deals with changes to how drug possession cases are dealt with by the justice system. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Ackerman said a significant number of people dying are blue collar workers and she suspects the stigma is preventing people from speaking out, or seeking help, in her community.

And help, she said, is hard to find which means Lametti’s proposed legislation will not help her constituents much either without government investment in housing and mental health supports. 

“There is little to no services to put them through,” she said. “There comes a point where we just need to stop pulling people out of the river and go upstream to find out why they’re falling in,” she added, quoting Desmond Tutu.

Lori Ackerman, the mayor of Fort St. John, B.C., once worked for the local Salvation Army and says services for people with substance use issues in northern B.C. are sorely lacking. (Lori Ackerman)

According to Stewart, the federal NDP could be proposing amendments to Bill C-22 that would make it more comprehensive. Those proposed amendments have not been confirmed by CBC.

At a Vancouver Police Board meeting last week, an audit presented to the board showed Indigenous people were disproportionately stopped for street checks by city police in 2020.

Stewart, who has called for a ban on street checks, said he is glad to see justice for Black and Indigenous people, he was just hoping for more from the Justice Ministry.

“Work with the mayors to try bold steps to reduce the overdose and death rate,” he said. “It’s just simply unacceptable and we’re not doing enough.

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