Vancouver mayor moves to decriminalize simple possession of illicit drugs

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart says he’s preparing to table a motion that would see city council vote on the decriminalization of simple possession of illicit drugs.

“Personal possession and use of drugs are not a criminal justice issue, it’s a health issue, and it’s time we fully embraced a health-focused approach to substance use. In fact, it’s long overdue,” said Stewart during a news conference on Wednesday.

The city has been at the forefront of drug policy change, he said, adding his plan would see Vancouver become the first Canadian jurisdiction to take such action.

After tabling the motion next week, Stewart said he’ll write to federal officials requesting an exemption under the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that would end at the city’s boundaries.

City officials would work with Vancouver Coastal Health and police to craft the letter, and negotiations with Ottawa would follow, he said.

Stewart said the exemption could be granted by a cabinet order and wouldn’t have to pass through the House of Commons.

The move to decriminalize simple possession has “come from the grassroots up,” said the Vancouver mayor, who pledged to include people with lived experience with illicit drug use as the details of the city’s plan to decriminalize are worked out.

“There are some things that I can’t control and that is the limits that the federal government would put on any exemption, although I can definitely advocate for what the community thinks should happen.”

He didn’t know how long it would take for the federal government to sign off on the city’s plan, but Stewart said federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu is a champion of harm reduction and she has the authority to move quickly to grant the request.

There have been more than 1,500 overdose deaths in Vancouver since the public health crisis was declared in April 2016, said Stewart, and 2020 has been the worst year so far.

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