Vancouver Votes to Decriminalise All Drugs: What Now?

by Katya Kowalski



Last week Vancouver City Council voted to decriminalise all drugs, though it still requires federal approval before it is officially enacted. If approved, this is huge. Vancouver would be the first Canadian city to decriminalise personal possession of illicit drugs, following in the path that Oregon has paved earlier this month. 

This legislation is a step in the right direction to combat the worsening overdose crisis that Vancouver is facing. A public health emergency was declared in 2016 in response to overdose fatalities. Since then, over 5,000 people have died in British Columbia, 1536 of which are in Vancouver. Recent statistics reveal that 5 British Columbians die everyday from a drug overdose, with 162 drug-related deaths this October. Putting this in perspective with 32 Covid deaths in October, drug-related deaths are in an overwhelming and frightening lead in British Columbia. This demonstrates the urgency of acting now.

As an epicentre for this public health emergency, Vancouver has been on the front lines of discussions around drug use and addiction for a while. The argument for addiction being treated as a medical problem has been continuously brought to attention in Vancouver. Efforts have been made for community-based initiatives to de-stigmatise mental health and substance use, in order for individuals to access the help they need.

With deaths going up, there is an absolute need for greater treatment access, especially with Covid exacerbating a lack of access to harm reduction services. A recent publication in the journal Addiction, measured the impact of opioid overdose interventions implemented in British Columbia between 2016-2017 on the number of deaths prevented. Interventions included: take-home naloxone kits, supervised consumption sites and opioid agonist therapy. The study found that 2177 overdose deaths occurred in the period studied; during which an estimated 3030 deaths were prevented by all interventions, 1580 of which were averted with take-home naloxone. This highlights a need for a combined intervention approach to continue to prevent deaths and access to this must be promoted.

Over the summer, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police released a report which recognised substance use disorder as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice one. They recommended diverting these individuals away from the criminal justice system and toward social services and health care.

Recent polling shows Canada is pretty split for supporting drug decriminalisation with 44% in support of it. This suggests the public needs to be reassured and educated on why decriminalising drugs is a necessary step to combating this overdose epidemic.

Although Vancouver’s step toward decriminalisation is incredible for paving the way for progressive drug reform, there is still more to be done.

We do have to be weary believing decriminalisation is the end-game antidote for solving this public health emergency. 

Decriminalising drugs alone will not cure the problem in Vancouver, but it is a start for reducing harm and decreasing stigma. 

Why is it that we are seeing an overdose crisis? Vancouver is not an isolated example – worldwide we are witnesses to a grave mental health crisis. We live in an insane culture where being sane is easier said than done. We are increasingly alienated from other people, disconnected from the natural world. 

We lack connection and substance use is a symptom of a much larger problem. We must ensure that we look deeper into what drives addictive behaviours and how we can fix it at its root.

Addiction is a multifaceted issue which requires a multifaceted solution. As a problem that is rooted in psychological trauma, we must continue to acknowledge this in order to treat it effectively. Supervised injection sites, take-home naloxone and opioid replacement therapy are certainly a start for solving an addiction crisis, but understanding why individuals use drugs will help treat deep-rooted pain rather than treating a symptom of a larger problem. 

The tides are shifting and we are making great progress. Implementing evidence-based policies is the way forward to confront the overdose crisis, continuing to pave the way for progressive drug reform. The war on drugs as we know it, is coming to an end – but now we must ensure we are addressing addiction at its root cause.

Katya Kowalski is European Stakeholder Officer at Volteface, Tweets @KowalskiKatya

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