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A man prepares to use heroin at the Insite safe-injection clinic in Vancouver on May 11, 2011.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Vancouver would become the first Canadian city to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs under a new proposal aimed at reducing the number of overdose deaths.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart said the move is an “urgent and necessary next step” that would allow the city to fully embrace a health-focused approach to substance use.

“We all know that the overdose crisis is getting worse, it’s been impacted by COVID and the level of deaths is intolerable,” Mr. Stewart said in an interview. “This can help to reduce stigma and connect folks with health care.”

The mayor will introduce the motion Tuesday. If approved by council, the city and Vancouver Coastal Health will submit a formal request to the federal ministers of Health and Public Safety and to Justice Minister and Attorney-General David Lametti.

Under Section 56 of the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, the Minister of Health can exempt from provisions of the act “any person or class of persons … if, in the opinion of the Minister, the exemption is necessary for a medical or scientific purpose or is otherwise in the public interest.”

This exemption has been used to allow for the operation of supervised drug-use sites and to conduct research or clinical trials that involve controlled substances. More recently, it has permitted pharmacists to prescribe, sell and transfer prescriptions for controlled substances so people with substance-use disorders can continue to get medications amid the pandemic.

The HIV Legal Network, which last week released a report for municipal governments that outlines how to ask the federal government to move forward on decriminalization, noted that the exemption could apply to entire cities and provinces.

Calls for decriminalization have grown louder as overdose deaths have shattered records across the country, driven largely by an illicit drug supply that has become exceedingly toxic. Since 2016, the year British Columbia declared the situation a public-health emergency, more than 18,500 Canadians have died – 6,205 of them in B.C. and 1,540 in Vancouver alone.

B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry and her predecessor, Perry Kendall, now an executive director at the BC Centre on Substance Use, both support decriminalization, as do B.C. Premier John Horgan, Vancouver Coastal Health chief medical officer of health Patricia Daly, the Toronto Board of Health and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.

The Public Prosecution Service of Canada in August directed prosecutors to focus on the most serious drug crimes involving public safety concerns, “and to otherwise pursue suitable alternative measures and diversion from the criminal justice system for simple possession cases.” And just this month, Oregon became the first U.S. state to decriminalize simple possession.

The Globe reached out to all 10 Vancouver city councillors; of the seven who responded, all said they would support Mr. Stewart’s motion. In a statement, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the federal government has been working with B.C. and Mr. Stewart on options that respond to local needs, guided by recommendations from the police chiefs and prosecution service, and will review the request.

Decriminalization is not legalization. Personal possession and use of small amounts of illicit drugs would no longer be subject to criminal penalties, such as jail time, but possibly to administrative penalties such as fines. The manufacturing and trafficking of illicit drugs would remain illegal.

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized the purchase, possession and consumption of all psychoactive drugs for personal use, defined as 10 days’ worth for an average person. People found using illicit drugs must appear before a local Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Addiction, which considers individual circumstances and can impose a non-criminal sanction such as a referral to a treatment centre or a monetary fine.

Three Portuguese population surveys suggest drug use increased slightly after the legislation was enacted but then fell below pre-2001 levels. Drug deaths plummeted; a 2016 report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction found fatal overdoses among the lowest levels in the European Union, and the same was true for new cases of HIV and AIDS among drug users.

What decriminalization would look like in Vancouver would be worked out by the city, Vancouver Coastal Health, the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) and the community, Mr. Stewart said.

But asked Wednesday about the possibility of administrative penalties and mandatory treatment, Mr. Stewart said pieces of Portugal’s model are “a little too restrictive,” while Dr. Daly said “our preference is always voluntary treatment.”

The VPD has had a policy in place since 2003 of not responding to overdose calls unless requested by paramedics, and recommends few charges for simple possession in the absence of more substantive offences such as break-and-enter or assault.

However, people who use drugs regularly report being harassed by police, having their drugs seized and being charged with more serious offences instead, such as trafficking.

Donald MacPherson, the executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, says that’s why it is important to have decriminalization encoded in the law.

“Imagine if Insite didn’t operate with a Section 56 exemption and it was just discretionary action on the police whether they could go in there and arrest people and all that sort of thing,” he said, referring to Vancouver’s first supervised drug-use site.

“Insite is a very secure place to go into because there’s no question about the law. I think it’s about changing people’s behaviour. It’s about changing police behaviour, it’s about changing the public’s behaviour, it’s about changing the behaviour of people who use drugs. I think it’s subtle, but it’s a very strong signal.”

He said two important details of any decriminalization plan will be threshold limits – how much is considered personal possession – and whether sharing or selling small amounts will still be considered criminal.

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