Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart says he will ask the federal government to approve a plan to decriminalize simple possession of illicit drugs in the city.
The move comes as the overdose crisis shows no sign of slowing, with 2020 tracking to be the worst year on record with 328 overdose deaths in the city so far.
“Personal possession and use of drugs is not a criminal justice issue, it is a health issue,” said Stewart. “It is time to end the stigma around substance use, help connect more of our neighbours to health care, and save lives.”
If successful, Vancouver will become the first jurisdiction in Canada to decriminalize simple possession.
Over 1,500 lives have been lost to the overdose crisis in Vancouver since B.C. declared it a provincial public health emergency in April 2016.
City council is expected to approve a motion on decriminalization next week, followed by a request to the federal government for an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in order to decriminalize personal possession of illicit substances within the city’s boundaries for medical purposes.
Stewart said federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu is a “champion” of decriminalization and has the authority to quickly sign off on the plan.
“I’m hoping for good news this year but we can see this going on to the spring,” he said.
COVID-19 has been particularly brutal on drug users.
Vancouver’s chief medical health officer said the pandemic has resulted in a more toxic drug supply, while at the same time, making it more difficult for people to seek harm reduction and addiction treatment.
“It’s really crucial that in the midst of responding to pandemic we must respond to the worsening opioid overdose crisis,” said Dr. Patricia Daly.
Overdose killing far more people than COVID
Daly said the number of opioid overdose deaths in Vancouver this year is double the number of COVID-19 deaths. Provincewide, 1,200 people have died from opioid overdoses in 2020, compared to 290 from COVID-19.
“The difference is that those [dying from overdoses] are younger on average, and 90 per cent are in the prime of their life between 19 and 59 years of age,” she said.
Stewart says the specific details of decriminalization — things like what amount of each substance will be considered simple possession and whether to apply non-criminal sanctions — will be worked out with Vancouver Coastal Health, the Vancouver Police Department and other experts.
Daly said the work on decriminalization in Vancouver could also eventually expand to other parts of the province, like the north, where the overdose crisis is worsening.
In March, the province launched a safe supply program to give people access to prescription alternatives to illicit drugs in response to the dual heath emergencies.