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People march in the Downtown Eastside to call on the government to provide a safe supply of illicit drugs, in Vancouver, on April 14, 2021. A protest is planned for May 11 in Vancouver over the city's proposal to decriminalize simple possession of illicit drugs.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Drug user advocates are pushing back against Vancouver’s proposal to decriminalize simple possession, saying their lack of involvement in the initiative’s planning could result in harmful, precedent-setting policy.

A coalition comprising drug user, human-rights and community organizations is taking issue with the proposed threshold amounts for possession and the involvement of the Vancouver Police Department in the planning. The group also says people who use drugs have not been meaningfully engaged.

“All of this has left our organizations feeling very concerned about this moving forward, particularly as this will likely be a model copied by other municipalities or provinces contemplating decriminalization,” said Scott Bernstein, director of policy for the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.

The board of directors at the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, or VANDU, resigned from the city’s decriminalization working group on Monday.

Other groups taking issue with the city’s initial submissions to Health Canada include the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres, the Pivot Legal Society, the Harm Reduction Nurses Association and the HIV Legal Network.

A protest is planned for Tuesday afternoon in Vancouver to draw attention to the matter.

Vancouver City Council voted unanimously last November in favour of decriminalizing personal possession of illicit drugs, with Mayor Kennedy Stewart calling it an “urgent and necessary next step” to fully embrace a health-focused approach to substance use. The city has been particularly hard hit by Canada’s toxic drug crisis, with a record 408 people dying in 2020 alone.

The city is seeking an exemption from the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Under Section 56, 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.”

As part of this process, the city last month submitted to Health Canada initial proposed threshold amounts of drugs that a person would be able to carry without criminal sanction: up to two grams of opioids such as heroin and fentanyl, three grams of cocaine, one gram of crack cocaine and 1.5 grams of amphetamines – the substances most commonly involved in fatal overdoses.

The amounts were based on three longitudinal surveys with data from about 1,400 people who used drugs in Vancouver until the end of 2018. Consultants hired by the city then worked with the Vancouver Police Department and the office of Vancouver Coastal Health Chief Medical Health Officer Patricia Daly, and landed on a three-day supply based on the upper quartile of personal use from the studies.

Some have argued that the amounts – particularly for opioids – are too low, given that the fentanyl in the illicit supply has sent tolerances soaring.

Dave Hamm, a board member with the VANDU, said they also fail to account for the drug economy in the Downtown Eastside, where people sometimes buy wholesale amounts – such as when a supply has been confirmed through drug checking to be free of deadly additives – and often hold amounts for others.

Kora DeBeck, an associate professor in the school of public policy at Simon Fraser University and a research scientist with the BC Centre on Substance Use, is one of the consultants hired by the city.

In an earlier interview with The Globe and Mail, Dr. DeBeck acknowledged the amounts are conservative given the “astronomical” increase in opioid use in recent years, and that the surveys focused largely on injection drug use, not accounting for people who snort or smoke their substances. But she emphasized the proposed thresholds are just initial, and that they will be evaluated and revised as needed.

“This is a measured, thoughtful, well-informed approach to rolling this out, certainly with the plan, intention and proposal in place to monitor, evaluate and reconsider as it’s moving forward,” she told The Globe last month.

Coalition members also argue that police have no place in determining the steps toward decriminalization.

“Why are the police even [at the table]?” said Garth Mullins, a VANDU member and host of the Crackdown podcast. “Right now they are writing the regime, they have a veto on it, when [drug users] are not even in the mix.”

The city is expected to make its final submissions to Health Canada in the next week.

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