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Vancouver Decriminalization Initiative Takes Critical Step

  • Health Canada will formally discuss the motion to decriminalize simple possession of drugs, Mayor Kennedy Stewart shared.
  • Vancouver City Council passed the motion to decriminalize simple possession of illicit drugs in November, and is now awaiting federal nod.
  • Vancouver would become the first city in Canada to decriminalize drug possession if the Section 56 exemption is approved by Health Canada. Others may follow.

Health Canada has agreed to hold a formal discussion with the city of Vancouver on the decriminalization of simple possession of illicit drugs, Mayor Kennedy Stewart said on Wednesday. This will bring Vancouver a step closer to becoming the first city in Canada to decriminalize simple possession.

“This news comes at a time when the overdose crisis in our city has never been worse, with a person a day still needlessly dying due to poison drugs. While 2020 looks to be the deadliest year on record for overdoses, I am hopeful that this news from Ottawa can mean that 2021 will be different,” Mayor Stewart announced in a press release.

British Columbia, already declared an opioid overdose emergency zone in 2016, saw more than 1500 opioid-related deaths in 2020. 

Last November, the Vancouver city council voted unanimously for the motion to decriminalize simple possession, requesting an exemption from the federal government under Section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Section 56 is a special exemption granted by Health Canada that allows an individual to access restricted drugs. The federal health ministry has recently been granting legal exemptions to individuals with palliative conditions on a case-by-case basis, as well as to train medical professionals in the administration of psilocybin.

If approved by Health Canada, residents of Vancouver could be allowed to possess small amounts of illicit drugs like heroin and meth without fear of legal consequences. The move comes after various health measures and harm reduction techniques have failed to prevent an increase in opioid overdose deaths, escalating the crisis in the city. 

Montreal’s city council also passed a similar motion this week, requesting the federal government decriminalize simple possession of illicit drugs. Moreover, lawmakers from Niagara Fall City, Ontario and Kamloops, B.C. have been considering decriminalization of simple possession as a response to the dismal failure of existing policies and a growing number of opioid overdose-related deaths in their cities. 

Decriminalization for Mental Health: A Call from Advocates

Canada seems to suffer from ever-rising depression and anxiety rates, bringing many to drug abuse, particularly since the onset of a pandemic during which so many people have been asked to maintain social distancing and self-isolate. “Social distance is all about disconnection, and as we get more disconnected, it feeds into an addiction cycle,” Mark Haden, adjunct professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health and Executive Director of MAPS Canada says.

Decriminalization and supply models, however, can reduce the risk of toxic illegal drugs, usually sold by street-side drug distributors. At the same time, the motion also opens access to other restricted psychedelic drugs like psilocybin, ibogaine, and other natural plant medicines and fungi that have shown potential benefits in treating mental health issues like depression, anxiety, PTSD, and most importantly in this case, addiction.

There’s already a growing grey market for psilocybin in Canada. In 2019, a Vancouver-based provider, Dana Larsen, openly established his psilocybin medicinal dispensary and has been selling microdoses of magic mushrooms ever since.

The model to decriminalize, largely inspired by Portugal, could encourage more harm-reduction practices and safe supply for people who rely on drugs while making their path to healthcare services easier. All eyes are now on Health Canada and the City of Vancouver to reach a decision.

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