VANCOUVER—Talk to historians and they will tell you Vancouver — the city that spawned Greenpeace and the anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters — has always marched to its own, cloudy-skied beat.
It is a city whose residents don’t look east for kindred spirits but south to progressive-minded cities, such as San Francisco and Portland.
And so, it was no surprise that Vancouver’s city council this past week made history when it passed a motion to seek federal approval to decriminalize personal possession of all illicit substances, the first city in Canada to do so.
This is the city, after all, famously known for the Gastown Riots of 1971, which started as a peaceful protest against drug laws and police drug raids, and for being the first city in North America to open a supervised drug consumption site back in 2003.
“Vancouver has arguably been on the front lines of Canada’s ongoing debate about drug use, drug culture, and addiction, and how best to grapple with this complex problem,” said Michael Boudreau, a criminology professor who has written about Vancouver’s counterculture.
“So, I am not surprised by the city’s call to decriminalize all forms of drugs.”
The impetus for the motion, of course, lies in the grim numbers of the overdose epidemic. From January through October, B.C. recorded 1,386 illicit drug overdose deaths, putting the province on track to surpass the previous yearly record of 1,549 overdose deaths in 2018.
The key culprits? Contaminated supply and challenges with accessing harm-reduction services during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lisa Lapointe, the chief coroner, told reporters.
According to the motion passed this past week in Vancouver, which has itself seen more than 300 overdose deaths so far this year, the city will seek a federal exemption to decriminalize personal possession of illicit substances within the city’s boundaries and will write to all other B.C. local governments, urging them to consider doing the same.
Decriminalization means people who possess drugs for personal use would no longer face criminal penalties, though, depending on how it’s implemented, they could still face administrative penalties or fines. It is different from legalization, which removes all criminal prohibitions and develops a regulated system for production and sale of a substance.
“Vancouver has once again decided to lead the way on drug policy, in order to save lives,” Mayor Kennedy Stewart said following the unanimous vote to decriminalize.
Drug policy experts and community activists hailed the move.
“We know from public health research that criminalizing individual substance use or possession is not effective for deterring people from using substances,” said Elaine Hyshka, a professor of health policy and management at the University of Alberta.
In fact, it increases the harm of drug use, she said. The consistent threat of criminalization makes people less willing to talk to doctors or to seek help for their substance use. They are also more prone to using drugs alone or in hiding, which makes them more vulnerable to overdose.
“People who are using drugs are feeling the weight of the moral approbation of society on them and that stigma is often internalized,” said Scott Bernstein, director of policy at the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.
“It’s also ingrained in systems where doctors or pharmacists don’t want to do certain kinds of interactions or health interventions because they’re stigmatizing them.”
Research has also shown that police enforcement of drug laws has been unevenly applied, he said.
“We know drug prohibition disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous and other racialized, low-income communities who often get profiled or disproportionately arrested and incarcerated for drug crimes.”
Having a criminal record can create barriers to employment and travel, he said.
Support for decriminalization is widespread, experts say. Toronto’s board of health earlier this month reiterated its call to the federal government to permit simple possession of all drugs for personal use.
Over the summer, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police released a report recognizing substance use disorder as a public health issue and recommending alternatives to criminal sanctions. “Merely arresting individuals for simple possession of illicit drugs has proven to be ineffective,” the report said.
In the U.S., Oregon recently became the first state to remove criminal penalties for small amounts of street drugs.
Whether Vancouver encounters any roadblocks getting its proposal approved by Ottawa remains to be seen. In a CBC Radio interview in September, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refused to endorse decriminalization, saying the government was prioritizing other areas, such as getting a safer supply of opioids.
“There is not one silver bullet,” he said.
Emmett Macfarlane, a political science professor at the University of Waterloo, speculated that Trudeau’s lukewarm position on decriminalization could be because he found the marijuana-legalization debate to be “such a headache that they’re risk averse here.”
“I haven’t seen any expert claim that decriminalization is a magic pill that will solve the opioid epidemic or drug addiction generally. But it would be consistent with a harm-reduction strategy that the federal government has otherwise supported, in that it will help decrease stigma and make it more likely for people to get the help they need,” he said.
“The Trudeau government has claimed to support evidence-based decision-making, and I suspect, unfortunately, the question will be whether it is willing to spend the political capital necessary to accede to Vancouver’s request.”
A recent poll of more than 1,200 people from Narrative Research suggests Canadians are divided over the issue, with 44 per cent supporting decriminalization. Support was highest in B.C. at 53 per cent.
“What we can do is reassure the prime minister and federal officials, Vancouver knows what it’s doing,” said Libby Davies, a former NDP MP and longtime Downtown Eastside activist. “We have a really stellar history of harm reduction, of steady progress, measurement and accountability. They should trust Vancouver.”
Ann-Clara Vaillancourt, Trudeau’s press secretary, said this past week his position hadn’t changed.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu said through a spokesperson the government will review Vancouver’s request while continuing its “work to get Canadians who use substances the support they need.”
If Vancouver does get its exemption, implementation will be closely scrutinized.
Portugal, which became the first country in the world to decriminalize drugs in 2001, uses a model whereby a person caught with small amounts of drugs appears before a so-called “dissuasion” panel typically consisting of psychologists, social workers and doctors, who then assess whether that individual should get treatment.
“Should they be coerced into accessing treatment or care? … I’m not sure that’s the approach Canada needs to take,” Hyshka said.
Sandra Ka Hon Chu, director of research and advocacy at the HIV Legal Network in Toronto, agrees. Vancouver should reject any calls to adopt, as an alternative to criminal charges, administrative sanctions, such as fines or mandatory referrals to treatment, she said.
“People who use drugs in Portugal have shared how this has meant that they continue to be stopped, searched and harassed by the police, and that this policing falls most heavily on the most marginalized communities of people who use drugs.”
Drug policy experts and city observers can’t say definitively how Vancouver came to be a consistent pioneer when it comes to drug policy reform.
But they’ve got some guesses.
Look back over the past century, the city’s port and resource-based economy attracted men who never settled into family life and developed relaxed attitudes toward drug use. An influx of young Canadians from other parts of the country and even some draft-dodging Americans contributed to the continuation of a vibrant drug culture.
When police started to push back against that culture and carried out targeted arrests in the 1960s, it emboldened recreational drug users to protest against the “war on drugs,” said Boudreau, who teaches at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick. “For a time, this seemed like a clash that had become an integral part of Vancouver’s social fabric.”
A seminal moment came in 1971, when members of the Youth International Party, known as Yippies, co-ordinated a peaceful protest against drug laws and police crackdowns in Vancouver’s Gastown district. When police, some on horseback, moved in to break up the demonstration, violence erupted, resulting in numerous arrests and property damage.
Vancouver’s proximity to progressive-minded U.S. cities could be another influence, said Michael Kluckner, president of the Vancouver Historical Society.
“We are as likely here to look south — I don’t mean Trump, but I think Oregon,” he said. “People here are very admiring of Portland. They’re also mindful of what’s going on in Seattle. Both of those are quite liberal, progressive American cities.”
“Go back 50 or more years,” he added, “and the impetus for the counterculture here did not come from Eastern Canada; it came right up the coast from San Francisco.”
Perhaps unlike other Canadian cities, Vancouver’s compact geography seems to magnify social problems, Kluckner continued. But its fluid international population brings a “melting pot of ideas,” which could also be a contributing factor.
Vancouver’s current council, Kluckner noted, is made up of diverse individuals who don’t appear to be tethered to any particular ideology. They hail from a range of parties and seem to have adopted a “do as your please” attitude when it comes to policy and this latest motion reflects that.
“I think, in a practical way, they’re saying, ‘We have to do something and we can’t wait for the wheels of bureaucracy to turn 3,000, 4,000 miles away.’”
Beginning in the 1990s, the city seemed to shift away from what Kluckner describes as establishment politics. Vancouver’s mayor at the time, Philip Owen, pushed forward with a revolutionary approach to drug addiction, treating it as a public health issue that could be managed using the “four pillars” — prevention, enforcement, treatment and harm reduction.
That policy shift paved the way for Insite, the first supervised consumption site in North America, Kluckner said.
“He was very much an establishment figure, but he was moved by the in-your-face chaos of the Downtown Eastside and deaths,” as well as by community activists who painted addiction in a more humanistic light.
One of those activists was Davies, who suggests that another reason why Vancouver has been a leader in drug policy innovation is because, unlike other “skid rows” that have been gentrified or demolished, the Downtown Eastside has persevered.
“I was part of the first wave in the 1970s. I was a young community organizer. We fought like hell to recognize this neighbourhood because it wasn’t seen as a neighbourhood,” she said.
“Want to go back to the roots of this? It’s because this community, although it faces incredible obstacles and challenges, it is a community. There’s a sense of connectedness, there’s a sense of resilience, there’s a sense we can fight back.”