Decriminalization of Controlled Substances in Vancouver
Vancouver drug decriminalization is a heavily contested topic amongst city officials. In response to the alarming rise of overdoses in British Columbia, the municipal government of Vancouver recently submitted a request to the federal government to decriminalize the simple possession of illicit drugs within the city of Vancouver.
The Minister of Health’s Power to Exempt Certain Controlled Substances
The Minister of Health has the authority, pursuant to section 56(1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, to exempt any substance if the Minister determines it is necessary for medical or scientific purposes or determines it is in the public interest. Section 56(1) was originally legislated to support the advancement of medical and scientific research. Now, the focus of the request is the public interest. If the Minister determines it is in the public interest and makes an exemption, then it would not be an offence under the CDSA to possess those exempt substances.
What Kinds of Drugs And How Much?
The proposal seeks an exemption for opioids, including heroin, fentanyl and other powder street opioids, as well as cocaine, crack cocaine and amphetamine. These are the drugs most commonly involved in the current opioid overdose crisis.
- Opioids (i.e. heroin, fentanyl, and other powder street opioids): 2 grams
- Cocaine: 3 grams
- Crack Cocaine: 10 rocks or 1 gram (1 rock = 0.1 grams)
- Amphetamine: 1.5 grams
Vancouver Drug Decriminalization: How Drastic is the Change?
While Vancouver is taking an initiative to prevent and mitigate the negative impacts associated with the overdose crisis, it is important to remember that decriminalization is not legalization. The proposal is limited to simple possession. The exemption does not apply to commercial purposes such as possession for the purpose of trafficking.
Even before Vancouver’s proposal, the number of charges recommended for simple possession has diminished over the years. Possession charges are certainly less common than for more serious offences. The list below outlines the number of charges the Vancouver Police Department recommended for simple possession over the past 12.5 years:
- 2008: 476 charges for simple possession
- 2009: 224
- 2010: 141
- 2011: 90
- 2012: 65
- 2013: 70
- 2014: 48
- 2015: 65
- 2016: 43
- 2017: 30
- 2018: 21
- 2019: 16
- 2020: 10 (January to June 2020)
Given the significant decrease in the number of charges recommended for simple possession, the proposal does not bring about a drastic change for drug offences in the city of Vancouver. Nevertheless, the proposal is a step towards the more general decriminalization of controlled substances. It may also reduce the stigma associated with drug use.