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Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson is calling for the decriminalization of personal drug use and possession following the release of new numbers that show more than 4,000 Canadians are believed to have died of opioid overdoses last year – with nearly 10 per cent of them in the city.

The mayor said Vancouver has long committed to treating drug use as a health issue, but that his recent and explicit calls to decriminalize are a direct response to an overdose crisis that has killed an average of one person every day in the city.

“Vancouver’s been in a free fall for 17 months with fentanyl-related deaths spiking,” he said in an interview on Wednesday.

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“We’ve heard our key health experts provincially talk about decriminalizing and ensuring there’s access to clean drugs. I’ve agreed all along at the necessity for drug-policy reform and decriminalizing possession. This is not getting better and it’s time for more disruptive and more innovative action to save lives.”

However, Mr. Robertson stopped short of saying Vancouver police should cease arrests for petty drug crimes, saying it’s up to Police Chief Adam Palmer to make operational decisions.

“I’m certainly discussing this matter with [Chief Palmer],” Mr. Robertson said. “His officers are dealing with chaos and dead people every day from drug overdoses. He’s well aware of the problem and we’ve stood together many times talking about the need for a health-based approach.”

The Global Commission on Drug Policy, a panel of world leaders and intellectuals, has called for drug decriminalization and regulation since its creation in 2011. In a position paper released last fall, it also recommended a “sanctuary city” initiative under which cities that wish to do so can de facto decriminalize petty drug use and possession.

Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, has recommended the same.

“Cities could tell their police, ‘Look: Your job is not to arrest anyone for possession of drugs, your job is to help people get to services,’” Mr. MacPherson said. “Especially in B.C., an emergency has been declared. So let’s use some emergency powers and immediately de facto decriminalize possession of drugs and put the focus on getting people help.”

Chief Palmer was not available for an interview on Wednesday, but Vancouver Police Department spokesman Sergeant Jason Robillard said the department has a progressive drug policy that does not target individual drug users unless that drug use interferes with public safety.

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“The number of charges recommended by the VPD for possession of a controlled substance without the presence of another substantive offence [such as break-and-enter or assault] is historically very low,” Sergeant Robillard said in a statement.

Drug decriminalization is different from legalization. Under decriminalization, personal possession and use of small amounts of illicit drugs would no longer be subject to criminal penalties, such as jail time, but perhaps an administrative penalty, such as a fine. Manufacturing and trafficking illicit drugs would remain illegal and the quality of these drugs would remain unregulated.

Portugal, in 2001, decriminalized the purchase, possession and consumption of all psychoactive drugs for personal use, defined as 10 days’ worth for an average person. Those found using appear before a “dissuasion commission,” which then considers individual circumstances such as the person’s situation, the drug consumed and the public or private nature of consumption.

If the person agrees to treatment, the commission helps to identify an appropriate health service. Other non-criminal sanctions include a fine, community service or a requirement to periodically appear before health services.

B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry, as with her predecessor Perry Kendall, also supports removing criminal penalties for personal drug use.

“Criminalizing simple possession of drugs is really ineffective at preventing drug use and is harmful to people,” Dr. Henry said. “It’s what stigmatizes people, it’s what gets people into the criminal justice system and all of the harms that that entails.”

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