The province’s three-year experiment on decriminalization of illicit drugs for personal use is under way. For it to succeed, governments, and possibly the courts, will have to tackle the issue of safe supply.
“Nobody wanted to do it. Nobody still really wants to do it, but yet it’s happening.”
That’s how Kennedy Stewart, former mayor of Vancouver, describes how his city and British Columbia became just the second place in North America to decriminalize hard drugs.
As of February, the province’s residents can legally carry up to 2.5 grams of heroin, crack, cocaine, MDMA, or fentanyl. It is arguably the most significant legal change yet in Canada’s effort to stem the rise in deaths from the opioid crisis.
The long road to decriminalization
The wheels of decriminalization have been in motion for quite some time. “I don’t think that there’s been much significant change yet,” says Kyla Lee, who practises criminal law in Vancouver.
Lee, who is vice-chair of the CBA’s criminal law section, notes that the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) promulgated a new policy in 2020, calling on Crown prosecutors to avoid laying simple drug possession charges, with some exceptions. At the time, lawyers worried that the guidelines would lead to little actual change.
But things did change in Vancouver, particularly in the Downtown Eastside, says Lee.
“I haven’t seen, since PPSC’s policy charge, a single charge approved on its own for possession,” she told CBA National. Even outside the city, charges have declined substantially — save for the occasional arrest in Whistler for cocaine possession, she says. Arrests have been relatively few and far between.
There had been fears that police would charge drug users with more serious offenses — like possession for the purposes of trafficking.
But those have been rare, too, says Lee. “As far as police enforcing that policy through arrests…it wasn’t happening as much, especially not in Vancouver,” she says. The defence bar has been pushing back against those charges when they did arise. The message was that trying to upgrade simple possession charges wouldn’t fly.
The Crown, Lee says, has taken that cue well.
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