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The next mayor of Vancouver will inherit a city in the throes of the worst overdose epidemic it has ever experienced. And while the three frontrunners support the bold and sometimes controversial homegrown initiatives that have helped stanch some overdose deaths in the city, they have differing opinions on whether the city’s mayor has a role to play in advocating for changes to federal drug policy.

There have been growing calls, for example, for the decriminalization of personal possession and use of illicit drugs. Groups such as the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the United Nations, the World Health Organization and the Canadian Mental Health Association say that removing criminal penalties for personal use is an important step in treating problematic substance use as a health issue.

Under decriminalization, a person caught using illicit drugs could face a non-criminal sanction such as a referral to treatment or a monetary fine. It is different from legalization; it would remain illegal to manufacture, sell and distribute drugs.

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The Globe and Mail asked Kennedy Stewart, Ken Sim and Shauna Sylvester – the three leading contenders according to recent polling – about the issue in both e-mails and separate roundtable interviews held this week.

Kennedy Stewart, back centre, Ken Sim, left, and Shauna Sylvester, right, listen during a mayoral candidates debate in Vancouver, on Sept. 17, 2018.

DARRYL DYCK

Mr. Stewart is a former Burnaby MP with the NDP – Canada’s first major party to call for drug decriminalization under Leader Jagmeet Singh. However, the independent candidate said the policy would not be a priority for him to pursue as Vancouver mayor.

“I don’t think that it’s going to come at the federal level any time soon, so I just want to focus on stuff I can accomplish,” Mr. Stewart said, citing affordable housing and transit infrastructure as his top priorities.

“I wouldn’t waste my political capital on something that’s not going to happen.”

Non-Partisan Association candidate Ken Sim responded in an e-mail that “it would definitely be preferable to impose fines or, even better, push toward treatment rather than dealing with the issue through the criminal justice system.”

But when pressed on the matter during a roundtable discussion, Mr. Sim said he did not know the difference between decriminalization and legalization and, when informed, said he would create a citywide task force to “come up with suggestions on how we make the next big step in … making significant improvements in this challenge.”

Ms. Sylvester, also an independent candidate, said she supports decriminalization as part of an overall strategy and would work toward it in collaboration with Ottawa, the RCMP and Vancouver police.

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“I think there’s a real role of advocacy that the mayor does play,” she said, "Not just locally here in Vancouver, with educating people and understanding the nature of this crisis, but also the federal government.”

About 1,000 people in Vancouver have died of drug overdoses since 2015, owing largely to a drug supply contaminated with illicit fentanyl. The city has led the country in opening supervised consumption sites, offering drug-checking services and widely distributing the opioid overdose antidote naloxone – measures that have been credited for keeping the death toll from being even higher.

Among other candidate proposals to address the overdose epidemic: Mr. Stewart would create an emergency task force and negotiate an agreement between the municipal, provincial and federal governments to support the Downtown Eastside similar to the 2000-10 Vancouver Agreement; Mr. Sim would advocate for a Park Board response plan that would see park rangers assist people living with homelessness, mental-health and substance-use issues; and Ms. Sylvester would work with partners “to ensure a supply of clean drugs for people who use drugs.”

Incumbent Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson began publicly calling for decriminalization this spring, and has since added that his number one priority is to ensure drug users can access an uncontaminated supply. Asked this week if he had advice for his successor, Mr. Robertson said to “be relentless.”

“Keep pushing our federal and provincial partners to do their part," he said. “It’s a health issue.”

With a report from Gary Mason

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