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

By Cedric Jones Last Updated: January 11, 2024
Last Updated: January 11, 2024
Artwork by Diego Joka

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. The city submitted its final proposal to decriminalize small amounts of all illicit drugs in May 2021.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart says drug addiction in Vancouver is a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue. 

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

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

In this article, we will discuss Vancouver’s proposal to decriminalize all illegal drugs, including what drugs are included, how much citizens would be able to possess, and the pros and cons of it.

Summary: What’s In the Proposal?

According to Stewart, if Vancouver’s application for exemption from Canada’s federal drug laws is granted, people possessing controlled substances “under a certain threshold amount” in the city would not be subject to criminal penalties. Instead, they would have the chance to 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 what’s considered “personal use,” protocols for referring substance abusers to treatment or support services, and the local community’s involvement in the decision-making process. 

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 have without being charged for possession or having their drugs or paraphernalia seized. 

This threshold would not apply if the person was found selling drugs. If an individual possesses more than the threshold amount, the police decide 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 a starting point. 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 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 for possessing small amounts of illicit drugs. Instead, there would be 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 possessing amounts over the threshold will still be subject to seizure of the drugs and prosecution. Stewart says Vancouver intends to “destigmatize personal use while still penalizing dealers.”

3. The Community’s Involvement In the Decision-Making Process

More than 65% of the people in Vancouver support decriminalizing drugs. In fact, community participation is a major component of the Vancouver proposal. 

The proposal would establish the Implementation and Evaluation Committee, a group consisting of the Vancouver Police Department, community and minority groups, health professionals, and addicts. They would have input on how to move drug addiction from a legal issue to a public health issue.

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 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 as long as it’s under the threshold amount.

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 legalizing all illegal drugs any time soon.

However, prominent Canadian law firm Aird & Berlis LLP believes the Canadian federal government could legalize certain psychedelics for medical use soon, based on academic research, clinical studies, and political and legal developments in Canada, the United States, and internationally.

Deprioritization is another level used primarily by cities and municipalities. It sets no new legal parameters for possessing or using illegal drugs — all laws remain in full effect — but makes their enforcement a low priority. 

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

Proponents vs. Critics of the 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 are concerned that the numbers are too low, while some critics are worried that they are too high.

Here’s a more in-depth look at their concerns:

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 an overdose crisis that claims thousands of lives.

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 Palmer. It will also free up resources and manpower for more serious crimes, he added.

PHO Henry issued a report titled “Stop the Harm,” which provides evidence and information on how decriminalizing illegal drugs for personal use could help with 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 decriminalization, which would make users more likely to seek treatment since they would not have to worry about legal consequences.

Critics of the Proposal

Vancouver’s proposal has some pretty tough hurdles to overcome.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau does not back decriminalization as a public health response to the country’s escalating overdose crisis and says it’s not a “silver bullet” solution. 

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu does not support decriminalization but says she will keep an open mind.

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

VANDU believes Vancouver‘s proposal will set a dangerous precedent for drug users and that the people most affected by drug criminalization have been largely ignored. They are not interested in improving the proposal; they want to scrap it altogether.

VANDU’s biggest problem is that the projected threshold limits are far too low,  which means that a significant number of drug users would still be criminalized. For example, two grams of heroin might be a day supply for one addict but barely get another 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 from users and advocacy groups, VANDU also wants police participation to be completely cut out from any planning.

Benefits of Decriminalization

City officials say decriminalizing small amounts of illicit drugs will help destigmatize drug users, which often prevents people from seeking treatment and support.

Removing the stigma will give people easier access to treatment and other services and reduce the seizure of small amounts of drugs, often forcing individuals into illegal activities to replace the drugs.

Key Takeaways: The Future of the Vancouver Proposal

Dr. Patricia Daly, Chief Medical Officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, says the proposal is definitely a step in the right direction.

According to Mayor Kennedy Stewart, Health Canada has begun discussing decriminalizing drug possession in Vancouver. The city and its partners are prepared to implement policies and guidelines once Health Canada gives the approval. 

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. 

There is broad support for decriminalizing 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 Vancouver’s citizens support it. 

Stewart says he is not insensitive to the concerns of VANDU and other opponents:  “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.”