City of Vancouver wants new policies to decriminalize all illicit drug possession

Mar 10 2018, 5:45 pm

In a major shift on policy amidst the deadly opioid overdose crisis, the City of Vancouver is calling on the federal government to decriminalize the possession of all personal illicit drugs.

According to a release, the municipal government says the first step towards the complete decriminalization of drugs – including hard drugs – is the formation of a multi-sectoral task force that will lead its implementation.

Other strategies to combat the crisis that revolve around evidence-based treatment programs include supporting the scale up of programs that provide access to safe opioids for those most at risk for overdose, enhancing de-stigmatization programs, and continuing to roll out “innovative overdose prevention services in areas where users remain isolated.”

The municipality is urging the senior governments to support these strategies after Vancouver saw the highest number of overdose deaths in January 2018 since May of last year, with 33 recorded overdose deaths during the month-long period.

Based on the BC Coroners Service’s new statistics, a total of 365 people died of an illicit drug overdose within just the city of Vancouver in 2017. This is equivalent to one death per day throughout the entire year.

“We are witnessing a horrific and preventable loss of life as a poisoned drug supply continues to kill our neighbours, friends, and family,” said Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.

So far this year, Vancouver Fire Rescue is averaging 100 calls per week that relate to overdose response.

“Volunteers and first responders are working around the clock to keep people alive, but lives are on the line and more action is urgently needed,” continued Robertson. “We will keep pushing for bold solutions, and that includes breaking down the stigma that leads people to use drugs alone at home, addressing access to a clean supply through drug testing equipment, and dramatically improving a range of treatment options like opioid substitution therapy.”

In the federal government’s recent budget, $150 million is set aside over five years to provide provinces and territories with funding for projects that improve access to evidence-based treatment services.

A model similar to Portugal?

Portugal is often used as a case study for the impacts of decriminalization, as it decriminalized all drugs including cannabis, cocaine, and heroin in 2001.

In this country, possession of small drug amounts are treated as a public health issue instead of a criminal violation, and since this policy has been put into place the rate of death from drug overdoses has decreased significantly.

According to the 2016 United Nations World Drug Report, Portugal now has one of the lowest fatal drug overdose rates in the world.

“In Portugal we put the citizen in the center of our attention, because they have rights and duties like all others,” Dr. Joao Goulao, the current national drug coordinator of Portugal, told Daily Hive in a previous interview.

Goulao is widely credited for the creation of Portugal’s liberal drug policies, which are not a mere set of activities or measures but rather a diagnostic process with wide-reaching strategies accepted by levels of government, the public health sector, non-profit groups, police, and other organizations.

“In the particular example of addictive behaviours this means that services and responses must be suitable for their specific needs and in most cases those of their families,” he continued.

“To deal with the many types of addictions (illicit drugs, alcohol, gambling…) implies having the notion that several approaches have to be taken into account, considering many disciplines, different kind of professionals and institutions covering a broad spectrum of areas like health, justice, work, social security, education.”

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