Skip to main content

Ken Sim, then Vancouver's mayor-elect, arrives for a news conference in Vancouver on Oct. 17, 2022.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Vancouver’s mayor criticized federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre for making comments that depicted the decriminalization of drugs in B.C. as a failure and described parts of the city as “hell on Earth.”

“These comments are neither appropriate nor constructive,” Ken Sim said in a statement Thursday in response to Mr. Poilievre’s remarks. “We do not support anyone using our most vulnerable residents to advance a political agenda.”

Ahead of this week’s meeting of the federal Conservative caucus in Ottawa, Mr. Poilievre was asked about decriminalization efforts in British Columbia.

Under a three-year exemption from federal law, B.C. has become the first province to remove criminal penalties for small amounts of illicit drugs in a bid to help counter the overdose crisis.

Those found with less than a total of 2.5 grams of illicit opioids, crack and powder cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA no longer face risk of arrest or criminal charges. As well, police will no longer seize these drugs. The aim is to lessen the stigma of addiction and encourage people to seek help with drug use.

Mr. Poilievre told journalists on Wednesday that decriminalization has effectively been in place in B.C. since 2017. “The results are in. The debate is over. It has been a disaster, an absolute, abject failure,” he said.

Apparently conflating the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver with the East Vancouver section of the city, Mr. Poilievre went on to say, “You now only need to take a walk down the streets of East Vancouver where addicts lay face first on the pavement, where people are living permanently in tents and encampments.”

He said there has been a significant increase in overdose deaths since Justin Trudeau became Prime Minister eight years ago. “The Trudeau-NDP approach is on open display in Vancouver. It is a complete disaster. It is hell on Earth.”

He said a Poilievre government would emphasize recovery and treatment.

Asked about the comments, Mr. Sim said, “Every day, we see resilience in the Downtown Eastside through the acts of kindness and community that residents share with one another.”

Mr. Poilievre’s office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday from The Globe and Mail

Mr. Sim, elected mayor last fall on a platform that included an emphasis on public safety and a commitment to hire 100 new police officers and 100 mental-health nurses, said the city has its challenges, but is making progress in addressing them.

The Vancouver Police Department, in response to Mr. Poilievre’s comments, said decriminalization, along with a safe supply of drugs and public-health supports, could address harms associated with substance abuse, reduce stigma, prevent overdose deaths and increase access to health and social services.

“For many years, we have had a de facto policy not to arrest people for personal drug possession,” Constable Tania Visintin said in a statement.

“In that sense, decriminalization of small amounts of drugs for personal use will not impact on the way we operate. Instead, we will continue to focus our energy by targeting the violent and organized-crime groups that produce and traffic the harmful street drugs that continue to fuel the overdose crisis.”

This week, the B.C. Coroners Service announced that the province is losing an average of six lives a day to the overdose crisis, with a total 2,272 people dying in 2022. That’s 34 fewer deaths than the 2021 total.

In a statement, Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said drug toxicity linked to the unpredictable, unregulated drug supply is a key factor. While the health authority that includes the Downtown Eastside recorded the largest number of deaths in B.C., at 14 per cent, there were record high numbers recorded in the Northern, Interior and Vancouver Island areas of the province.

B.C. Premier David Eby, in Ottawa for meetings that include talks with Mr. Trudeau, said Wednesday that the illegal drug supply has become more toxic during the pandemic, and the province’s goal is to insert nurses and doctors between the “predatory drug dealers” and people with serious addiction issues.

He said providing a safe supply of drugs, and access to a nurse or doctor are part of that effort.

“All of this work is with an aim to keep people alive so that they can get into treatment,” he said, responding to a question about Mr. Poilievre’s remarks.

“I hope that all parties focus on an evidence-based approach around drug policy because when you talk to parents who have lost a kid who thought they were taking some kind of party drug at an event and ended up taking fentanyl and dying, you understand how serious this issue is and how it crosses partisan lines.”