The city of Vancouver is clouded by more than just dreary days of rain. Behind the beautiful landscape of never-ending mountains and trees, there is an opioid crisis that has devastated the city for over five years.
In a monumental move, the first of its kind in the country, Vancouver council voted to decriminalize the possession of illicit drugs on Wednesday, November 25th.
What does this mean? According to CBC, the city will allow for the simple possession of otherwise illicit drugs and calls for reduced control and penalties compared to existing laws. Technically, fines and warnings can still be issued, but no criminal charges can be laid.
Why is this so important?
In most countries, possessing illicit drugs is criminalized. This effectively criminalizes the people who use drugs themselves, which ultimately means it is illegal to be a drug user.
People who use drugs are therefore inherently vulnerable to police interference, and the potential to be arrested and imprisoned.
There is no question that marginalized communities and people of colour are more subject to extensive police stopping and searching.
This racial profiling ultimately lends to a disproportionate incarceration of not only POC drug users, but discriminates against those who are economically marginalized and disenfranchised.
The so-called War on Drugs is a way to target people of colour, houseless people and the poor. The proposition of Vancouver decriminalizing illicit drugs is huge, as it entitles freedoms without distinction of any kind, such as race, sex, religion or social status.
But before we can start celebrating, there are still a few steps in the process to bringing about this decriminalization, as it is pending approval from the federal government.
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart will submit a request to the federal ministers of health and justice for an exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, reports VICE News. If approved, the mayor will work with police departments, Vancouver Coastal Health, and people who have lived experience with drug use, in order to determine how decriminalization should be approved.
Portugal was the first country to decriminalize drugs in 2001. Despite fears that it would enshrine the country as a needle-strewn haven for drug tourism, recorded drug use went down in certain categories, including injection drug users and young people.
Similarly, Oregon made history in November when it became the first state in the US to decriminalize all illicit drugs. Just like the Portuguese regime, people in Oregon caught with a small amount of drugs would be given the option to pay a $100 fine, or be referred to optional treatment for addiction, according to CBC. If approved by the federal ministers of health and justice, this structure could reflect Vancouver’s new approach to controlling drugs and substances.
The call to decriminalize drugs is long overdue, as there is a fundamental need to reduce the stigma around drug use and break down the barriers that prevent people from accessing treatment due to fear of criminal sanctions.
People of colour and people of lower socioeconomic status have been disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs, especially relative to the amount of drugs consumed by society as a whole.
Those with more resources have better means to navigate the legal pitfalls of engaging in illicit drug use, and especially if they are white/white-passing, tend to be less likely targets by law enforcements in the first place.
It is also important to underscore the significant role of stigma around substance use and marginalized communities, such as Indigenous people and other ethnic groups more broadly, as well as houseless individuals who more often than not don’t get fair treatment.
This is one of the biggest benefits to decriminalizing illicit drugs in Vancouver.
It allows drug users of all backgrounds to safely engage in harm-reduction, regardless of the social hierarchy and substance they choose to consume, and to focus on drug addiction as a health issue, not a criminal issue.
This is a change to be celebrated, as it makes progress in properly estimating the relevance of opioid use throughout the city and decreasing needless incarceration of people who are struggling with addiction, and could instead help get people help they require rather than punishment.