British Columbia

Vancouver mayor says no time to argue over details of drug decriminalization plan

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said a federal election could see the small window of opportunity close on the city's bid to decriminalize simple drug possession.

Advocates worry the plan is being rushed through without consideration from the drug user community

A woman holds a sign during a protest Tuesday against the proposed Vancouver Model for illicit drug decriminalization in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart says he understands that some drug users aren't happy with the city's proposed model for decriminalization, but he believes time is of the essence and the details can be worked out later. 

According to Stewart, a federal election could see a small window of opportunity close on the city's bid for an exemption from criminal provisions on simple possession of small amounts of drugs. 

He emphasized the importance of submitting the proposal as soon as possible while Patty Hajdu, who has expressed a willingness to seriously consider the application, remains health minister.

But Scott Bernstein, director of policy at the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, worries politics are getting in the way of meaningful harm reduction.

"The problem is that people who use drugs and marginalized communities are in the middle of the crosshairs of those politics," he said. 

Bernstein, who met with Mayor Stewart and other advocates Wednesday, said he wants the federal government to take the proposal seriously, and while it appears they are willing to do so, changes need to be made before it is submitted. 

Coalition wants police removed from conversation

Bernstein said he'll be advocating at the provincial level to ensure the impacts on drug users of all demographics are taken into consideration.

Additionally, Bernstein wants police influence on the decriminalization plan to be "stripped."

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, pictured in June 2020, says he understands that some drug users aren't happy with the city's proposed model for decriminalization. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Stewart defends the role police have played in shaping the so-called "Vancouver model'' proposal, adding there's no way cabinet will approve a pitch that doesn't have the support of law enforcement.

In a letter to Hajdu and the Vancouver and British Columbia working groups on decriminalization, a coalition of 15 organizations said the current proposal must be scrapped immediately as it risks reproducing the harms of prohibition.

The coalition is asking the city to raise the proposed drug thresholds from a three-day supply and demanded the Vancouver Police Department take a back seat in discussions. 

Thresholds too small, says VANDU

Vince Tao of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users said the thresholds aren't even a three-day supply — for many drug users the amounts are closer to one day.

"This is what happens when you exclude drug users from drug policy, you get these out of whack numbers," he said.

"They're unrealistic. They're obscene. It doesn't make any sense."

Stewart said that while he understands that the proposal may not be what all drug users want, the proposal still opens the door for action on decriminalization.

"If we don't get the health exemption secured, if we don't have the federal health minister sign on to the exemption, then there are no reviews and decriminalization is dead,'' Stewart said.

"Unless we open that door, nothing's going to happen."

Stewart says there will be ongoing reviews of thresholds and other elements after an exemption is secured, but "this could all go away'' if the government or ministers changes. 

But Bernstein said there won't be room to easily make revisions to the policy.

"It's not just an academic exercise that we can come back to and adjust later and tweak," he said. 

To hear Scott Bernstein's interview on CBC's On the Coast, click here: 

With files from The Canadian Press and On the Coast