Critics say Vancouver’s drug decriminalization plan needs work, but mayor insists there’s no time

VANCOUVER — Drug advocacy groups say Vancouver’s plan for decriminalization is flawed and needs more work.

Under the so-called Vancouver model, the possession of illicit drugs for personal use would be decriminalized. The thresholds proposed by the city are two grams of opioids, three grams of cocaine, one gram of crack cocaine, or 1.5 grams of amphetamine.

Garth Mullins, a member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), says the thresholds are too low, and could do more harm than good.

“They set the level so low, that most of us would get arrested just for going about our lives,” Mullins said.

Vancouver’s mayor says he’s aware of the criticism, but feels time is running out. Kennedy Stewart says while Ottawa is on board with decriminalization in Vancouver, a federal election could destroy any chance of it happening. He says the plan needs to be submitted and approved immediately, and details can be worked out later.

“I understand these are 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,” Stewart says.

If approved by the federal government, Vancouver would become the first city in Canada to decriminalize drugs. Dr. Thomas Kerr, scientist with the BC Centre on Substance Use, agrees that the drug possession limits are currently too low. He’s calling on the city to slow down and draft a proposal that works for those who use drugs.

“Given the importance of this policy and the fact that the rest of the country is watching and it could set a new national standard, or even global standard, it’s very important that we get it right,” says Kerr.

Meanwhile, a coalition of 15 drug advocacy groups, including VANDU, has penned a letter to the local and provincial decriminalization working groups and federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu, saying Vancouver has excluded them from the policy-making process, and the proposal should be scrapped.

“If you concoct something behind closed doors and don’t share it with the people involved, we just have to take your word for how you came up with it,” says Mullins. “Just throwing darts at a dart board and seeing what number you get is not very effective.”

The coalition is also calling for the Vancouver Police Department to be removed from further discussions around decriminalization, but the mayor says decriminalization won’t work without the support of law enforcement officials.

“If the police come out in opposition to this, this will die in the federal cabinet,” says Stewart. “The police have to be involved in these initial stages.”

Since the opioid crisis was declared a public health emergency in April 2016, more than 7,000 people have died of overdoses in B.C.​


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