Vancouver Moves to Decriminalize All Illicit Drugs: “It Will Save Lives”

By Cedric Jones Last Updated: April 07, 2022
Last Updated: April 07, 2022
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Vancouver, the largest city in British Columbia, became the first city in Canada to ask for an exemption to the country’s federal drug possession rules. 

Mayor Kennedy Stewart says drug addiction in Vancouver is a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue. The city submitted its final proposal to decriminalize small amounts of all illicit drugs in May 2021. 

Since the onset of the pandemic, Stewart says the city has seen what he considers to be a “disturbing increase” in drug overdoses. According to the B.C. Coroners Service, overdoses in the province at large are at an all-time high.

Stewart says the proposal is a collaboration between health and social services organizations, addicts, law enforcement organizations, and research groups. He added that decriminalization would remove the stigma surrounding addiction, which would encourage more people to seek treatment.

In this article, we will discuss what drugs are covered in Vancouver’s proposal to decriminalize all illegal drugs and how much of the drugs citizens will be allowed to have in their possession. We will also discuss the pros and cons of the proposal.

Summary: What’s In the Proposal?

According to Stewart, if Vancouver’s application for exemption from Canada’s federal drug laws is granted, it would mean that people possessing controlled substances “under a certain threshold amount” in the city would not be subject to criminal penalties. Instead, they would be offered to voluntarily be connected with treatment resources, and their drugs and paraphernalia would not be confiscated. 

What’s In The New Proposal?

There are three main components to Vancouver’s proposal — outlining the threshold considered “personal use,” protocols for referring substance abusers to treatment or support services, and involvement of the local community in the decision-making process moving forward. 

Let’s cover each of these in more detail. 

1. What Constitutes “Personal Use?”

The “Personal Use Threshold” is the amount of drugs a person can possess under Vancouver’s decriminalization proposal without being charged for possession or having their drugs and/or drug paraphernalia seized. 

The personal use threshold would not apply if the person was found to be selling drugs. If an individual possesses more than the threshold amount, the police have the discretion to decide on whether to charge the individual or not.

The proposed thresholds are as follows:

  • Opioids: 2 grams
  • Cocaine: 3 grams
  • Crack cocaine: 10 rocks (or one gram)
  • Amphetamine: 1.5 grams
  • Dilaudid: 2 grams
  • Kadian: 7.5 grams
  • M-eslon: 7.5 grams
  • Oxycodone: 2 grams
  • Methadone: 1 gram
  • Suboxone: 120 milligrams
  • Clonazepam: 80 milligrams
  • Diazepam: 400 milligrams
  • Ativan: 80 milligrams
  • Prescription stimulants: 500 milligrams
  • MDMA: 2 grams
  • LSD: 30 units (tabs)
  • Psilocybin mushrooms: 20 grams
  • Ketamine: 3 grams
  • GHB: 5 grams

Vancouver’s public health consultant, Ted Bruce, says these thresholds “are only a starting point.” He says the amounts will change as more data becomes available from people “with lived experience” to ensure the model actually works.

2. Finding Help For Victims of Substance Abuse

According to a special report by B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, Canada’s prohibition-based drug laws and drug policies have not worked, are not working, and will not work. She added that “not only has the ‘war on drugs’ failed, it has actually done more harm than good.”

Stewart says that the Vancouver proposal for decriminalization would lead to fewer arrests, and there would be no fines or jail time involved for possession of small amounts of illicit drugs. The proposal also includes voluntary referrals to drug treatment and support programs. These referrals would be made by qualified healthcare workers instead of law enforcement officials, Stewart emphasized.

Individuals in possession of amounts over the threshold will still be subject to seizure of the drugs and prosecution. Stewart says Vancouver’s intent is to “destigmatize personal use while still penalizing dealers.”

3. Involvement of the Community in the Decision-Making Process

More than 65% of the people in Vancouver support the decriminalization of all illegal drugs. A major component of the Vancouver proposal is the participation of the community in the decision-making process. 

According to Stewart, the Vancouver Police Department, community groups, health professionals, minority communities, and addicts will all have input into the evolution of the process of moving drug addiction from a criminal justice issue to a public health issue. They will be a part of the Implementation and Evaluation Committee, which will be established by the proposal.

What’s the Difference Between Decriminalization & Legalization?

Decriminalization is not the same as legalization — there are a few key differences to be aware of. 

Decriminalization is defined as “the action or process of ceasing to treat something as illegal or as a criminal offense.” 

The Vancouver proposal to decriminalize all illegal drugs will not legalize the drugs. Technically, they would still be illegal, but the VPD will not arrest — and the city will not prosecute — a person for possession under the threshold amount for the drug in question.

Legalization is defined as “the action of making something that was previously illegal permissible by law.” It is highly unlikely that Canada will ever permit the legalization of all illegal drugs.

However, according to prominent Canadian law firm Aird & Berlis LLP, based on academic research, clinical studies, and political and legal developments in Canada, the United States, and internationally, “we believe that it is likely that the Canadian federal government will legalize the use of certain psychedelics in medical treatment in the near-to-medium term.” 

One other level of oversight — used primarily by cities and municipalities — is deprioritization. Unlike decriminalization, deprioritization sets no new legal parameters for the possession and use of illegal drugs. All of the drug laws remain in full effect. Deprioritization simply relegates their enforcement to a low priority. 

It is important to note that deprioritization is not decriminalization, and decriminalization is not legalization. It is also important to know what level of oversight governs your community.

Proponents vs. Critics of Vancouver Proposal

Although the overwhelming majority of Vancouver’s citizens — over 65% — support decriminalizing all illicit drugs, the proposal is not without its detractors. 

A major point of contention is the proposed thresholds. Some advocates of decriminalization are concerned that the thresholds might be too low, while some critics of the proposal are worried that they are too high. Here are some concerns of proponents and critics of the proposal.

Proponents of The Proposal

Mayors from seven British Columbia municipalities have signed a letter of support for the Vancouver proposal to decriminalize all illegal drugs. The mayors say that they empathize with Stewart because “they are on the front lines of a worsening overdose crisis that is claiming the lives of thousands of people.”

Vancouver Chief Constable Adam Palmer and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry also support the elimination of criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use. “Being addicted to a controlled substance is not a crime and should not be treated as such,” says Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer. It will also free up resources and manpower for more serious crimes, he added.

PHO Henry issued a report on the decriminalization of small amounts of illicit drugs entitled “Stop the Harm.” The report provides evidence and information on how the decriminalization of people who possess illegal drugs for personal use could help “turn the tide on the overdose crisis.” 

Henry says drug overdoses were declared a public health emergency in British Columbia six years ago. Since then, more than 2000 people have died of illicit drug overdoses in Vancouver alone. Henry has asked the provincial government to consider the decriminalization of people who use drugs, which would make them more liable to seek treatment since they would not have to worry about legal consequences.

In addition to government, health, and law enforcement agencies, over 65% of the population of Vancouver supports decriminalization of all illicit drugs.

Critics of The Proposal

Vancouver’s decriminalization proposal has some pretty tough federal hurdles to overcome. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he does not back decriminalization of drugs as a public health response to the country’s escalating overdose crisis. He says that the approach, raised as an option by advocates and medical officials across the country, is not a “silver bullet” solution. 

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu is also not a proponent of decriminalizing small amounts of illicit drugs but says she will keep an open mind.

The greatest critic of the proposal is The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU). VANDU’s mission statement defines itself as “a group of users and former users who work to improve the lives of people who use drugs through user-based peer support and education.

”According to VANDU, Vancouver‘s  model of decriminalization “will set a dangerous precedent for drug users across Canada.” The group says that people whose lives are most affected by the criminalization of drug possession have been largely ignored. They are not interested in improving the proposal; they want to scrap it altogether.

VANDU’s biggest problem with the Vancouver proposal is the projected threshold limits. Threshold limits are the amount of drugs a person can be caught with and not be subject to arrest or confiscation of their drugs.

VANDU says the threshold levels are far too low,  which means that a significant number of drug users would still be criminalized if the Vancouver proposal is adopted in its current form. For example, the group says, the two-gram threshold limit of heroin might be an all-day supply for one addict but barely get another addict through the morning.

According to VANDU, the data used to set the projected thresholds were collected in 2018 before the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. In addition to more input by users and advocacy groups, VANDU also wants police participation to be completely cut out from any decriminalization planning.

Benefits of Decriminalization

City officials say that decriminalizing small amounts of illicit drugs will help to destigmatize drug users. According to the city, this stigma often prevents people from seeking treatment services and support.

City officials also say that removing the stigma will enable people who are addicted to drugs to have easier access to treatment and other services, adding that it will also reduce the seizure of small amounts of drugs, which often forces individuals into risky behaviors and illegal activities to replace the drugs.

Key Takeaways: The Future of the Vancouver Proposal

The Chief Medical Officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, Dr. Patricia Daly, says that decriminalization of small amounts of illicit drugs in Vancouver is definitely a step in the right direction. Vancouver Coastal Health is a major healthcare provider in the area.

According to Mayor Kennedy Stewart, Health Canada has begun discussions about decriminalizing drug possession in Vancouver. He says the city and its partners are prepared to put in place “policies, guidelines, and strategies to successfully implement decriminalization once Health Canada provides approval to proceed.” 

Since Vancouver petitioned Health Canada for an exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, several nearby cities and the province of British Columbia have also filed for exemptions in preparation for decriminalizing small amounts of illicit drugs. 

There is broad support for the decriminalization of small amounts of illicit drugs from Vancouver police, community organizations, health professionals, minority communities, and the people who use drugs. The proposal is unprecedented in Canada, and more than 65% of people living in Vancouver support the decriminalization of all illegal drugs. 

Stewart says he is not insensitive to the concerns of VANDU and other opponents of the proposal:  “I understand this is not what all drug users want. However it does open the door to real action, and unless we open that door, nothing is going to happen,” he added.