Time is running out for Vancouver to ask the federal government to green light the city’s model for drug decriminalization, as the mayor struggles to answer calls for drastic overhauls by an advocacy group for people who use drugs. 

The deadline to submit the final draft of the plan was extended by two weeks from May 14 to May 28 in response to the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) resignation from the city’s working group on decriminalization. The plan has been in the works since November 2020, when City Council passed a motion to seek federal exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act—a first in Canada. 

“If threshold amounts are not revised immediately and drug users continue to be tokenized in the drafting process, the 'Vancouver Model' will go down in history as a fatal misstep in drug policy,” VANDU wrote in an open letter on May 11, which also condemns the decision-making powers of the Vancouver Police Department (VPD).

Mayor Kennedy Stewart chalks the “kerfuffle” up to a misunderstanding of the submission process, which has since been cleared, and that VANDU remains involved in the third phase. 

“Drug users have had input, researchers have provided data, all of that has been considered. But there's also the conditions that have been made pretty clear to me by the federal government in terms of what's required, which is both police input and also involvement, as well as the determination of thresholds,” says Stewart.

He compares the current debate over the Vancouver Model to the backlash Larry Campbell faced as mayor in 2003 over Insite, North America’s pioneering supervised injection site in Vancouver. At the time, Robertson was criticized for not moving fast enough, and not creating more than one facility.  

Meanwhile, Dr. M-J Milloy, a research scientist and co-author of a study on Insite’s success in reducing opioid overdoses in Vancouver, compares the city’s path to drug decriminalization to how Canada regulated cannabis. 

“I don’t really think that the specific needs and patterns of cannabis use among people in the Downtown Eastside and similar populations was really taken into account,” says Milloy, who says the cost of legal cannabis and lack of legal retail stores in poorer neighbourhoods means illegal dispensaries are the only option for many users, placing them at risk of being arrested. 

Dr M-J Milloy

Dr. M-J Milloy

Fellow BCCSU medical researcher, Dr. Lindsey Richardson, says it's important for Vancouver to consider the long lasting, negative impacts that policy changes can have on vulnerable communities. 

“People are watching, and I think it’s important to get it right because other jurisdictions might emulate it,” says Richardson, whose research focuses on the drug-impacts of social-economic interventions. 

Dr. Lindsey Richardson

Dr. Lindsey Richardson

Mayor Stewart admits that the former academic in him would be upset by the current submission, because it doesn’t strictly follow the advice of researchers. At the same time, the former federal NDP MP in him knows how Ottawa works, and Stewart says Vancouver needs to submit a final proposal before a federal election is called. 

“We’ve got a chance to get this done, but not if we consult for another two years. Patty Hajdu has a long experience with harm reduction, no other health minister has even suggested this might be possible. If I don’t get her signature on this letter, all this debate is for nothing.”

While the debate is important, Stewart also says the controversy is over a small piece of a massive puzzle facing Vancouver. 

“If I was going to divide the pie of what’s needed for overdoses and overdose deaths to be greatly reduced, safe supply is 80 per cent of the answer to getting people off the illicit drug supply and onto prescribed drugs,” says the mayor.

“Decriminalization is an important 10 percent, but it’s only 10 percent.”