Local governments and police departments in B.C. are at the centre of prohibitive drug policies that are costing drug users their lives, a new report from advocacy groups says.
That's according to the Pivot Legal Society and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), who say with an average of up to seven people a day dying from overdose in the province, something has to change. That, they argue, has to come at the grassroots level — in communities.
The groups released Talking Back to the City: A manual for winning – and resisting – local drug policy this week, a 60-page report for grassroots organizing against what they're calling ‘the drug war.’
“Even after (decriminalization), police are always circling. They’re everywhere. We just want our people to try the best at what they’re doing. Do good research. Don’t give up. If there’s no peace for the people, there’ll be no rest for the government,” said Delilah Gregg, a VANDU board member.
B.C.'s new drug decriminalization law kicked in Jan. 31. People in possession of 2.5 grams or less of fentanyl, heroin, morphine, crack and powder cocaine, methamphetamine or MDMA cannot be arrested or have their drugs seized.
Instead, the B.C. government says drug users will be offered an information card from officers about health and social supports, including local treatment and recovery services, if requested.
B.C.’s Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions told Glacier Media that Pivot, VANDU and the BC Association of Chiefs of Police have been supportive of that decriminalization exemption under the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
Moreover, the ministry said, the “RCMP have been engaged throughout the process of developing and implementing the exemption to decriminalize personal possession of small amounts of illegal substances.”
Still, the ministry said, it “continues to work closely with public health, police, local governments and other partners to update policies and practice guidelines relating to substance use where necessary to mitigate any outstanding issues that arise.”
However, the report notes the 2016 declaration of a public health emergency due to the rising number of overdose deaths. It said since then, all levels of government have vowed to use “all tools” to prevent overdose-related deaths.
“Yet in B.C. alone, an estimated 10,505 people have since then died from the unregulated drug supply,” the report stated. “We fiercely disagree that all tools are being used. How could we believe otherwise, when it is a daily struggle for our comrades around the province to simply provide overdose prevention services in their communities?
"At a time when local governments are fighting tooth and nail to shut down drug user services and supports, it is impossible to believe that all available powers and resources are being mobilized for anything other than the continued suppression of and violence against people who use drugs,” said the report.
The report targets what it calls the deadly action and inaction of local governments, highlighting that “it is here on the streets where drug users die from policy at the hands of police, bylaw enforcement officers, city councils and the public.”
“In addition to undercutting B.C.’s decriminalization policy, cities are routinely responsible for impediments to and closure of overdose prevention services (OPS) across the province, despite there being a standing ministerial order requiring OPS ‘wherever there is need,’” said Pivot lawyer Caitlin Shane.
"Drug user groups (which provide cutting-edge harm reduction services and drug policy advocacy) are constantly under threat too, with many having to close their doors due to local governments’ use of zoning restrictions, business licence denials, and nuisance property designations,” the report said, calling for an end to those practices from the local level up.
The groups set forth recommendations as part of a toolkit to assist those jurisdictions:
- decriminalizing people who use drugs (PWUD), our spaces, and our safe supply initiatives;
- amending bylaws and policies that disproportionately harm PWUD;
- ending drug and ‘paraphernalia’ seizures by law enforcement;
- ending local interference with drug user spaces and services;
- creating ‘bubble zones’ around harm reduction services;
- supporting a community-based approach to overdose; and,
- integrating alcohol into local harm reduction, safe supply, and decriminalization efforts.
The report notes local governments can apply for exemptions from the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to allow drug use in their communities to allow for safe use and safer supply initiatives.
Further, it said, not all laws need to be enforced.
“Another approach local governments can take toward decriminalization is for police forces to adopt policies of non-enforcement with respect to drug possession and street-based drug trafficking, meaning that they would not investigate or arrest people in connection with these offences,” the report said.
“We want this report to act as a manual,” said VANDU board member Elli Taylor.
What do government have to say?
The ministry said it has invested more than $11 million in new positions to ensure decriminalization success in B.C. This includes new “decriminalization navigators” who are on the ground to help build connections with local service providers and police.
The ministry said health authorities are also receiving funding for improve peer outreach services to strengthen on-the-ground resources for drug users and to partner with police to minimize the need for police interaction and/or referral where possible and improve interactions between police and people who use drugs.
Moreover, the ministry said both it, the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General have worked with police leadership and other stakeholders to develop training to support B.C.’s more than 9,000 front line police officers with the knowledge and tools to implement decriminalization.
And, the ministry said, that includes ensuring officers understand the terms and conditions of the exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, how decriminalization will address stigma, their role in the successful implementation of decriminalization, and the importance of a public health approach to substance use.
The ministry said more than 80 per cent of officers have completed the first phase of training with a second phase set to launch in the coming months.
“Several police agencies have made the training mandatory, including the RCMP, Abbotsford PD, Metro Vancouver Transit PD, Saanich PD and Vancouver PD,” the ministry said.
The City of Vancouver referred a request for comment to the Vancouver Police Department, which has yet to comment.