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'We cannot do this anymore': VANDU withdraws from decriminalization talks with city

Last Updated May 10, 2021 at 6:08 pm PDT

FILE -- A man prepares heroin he bought on the street to be injected at the Insite safe injection clinic in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday May 11, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Summary

VANDU is walking away from talks with the city about decriminalization of drug possession

A decades-old drug user advocacy group says the 'Vanocuver model' of drug decriminalization will fail, endanger people

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — Saying the people whose are lives affected by the criminalization of drug possession have been ignored, an advocacy group is pulling out of talks with the city about the “Vancouver model” of decriminalization.

When Mayor Kennedy Stewart announced his plan to ask the feds for a city-wide exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, a move meant to prevent people who use drugs from being arrested or prosecuted, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users was relieved — but wary.

“He said that he would include drug users in every design of this policy. Obviously, that’s very important, as drug users are the ones who have been at the blunt end of a deadly drug war for over two decades now. So, we had a sigh of relief that, finally, the city is listening to what we’ve been fighting for here at VANDU,” organizer Vince Tao explains.

“We were also quite skeptical of our inclusion.”

The original announcement was in November, 2020. Formal talks between the city and Health Canada began in January of 2021.

Tao says people who use drugs were not included until it was too late, and when they were — their input was ignored. A key concern for VANDU and a coalition of other advocacy organizations was that the amount of drugs people would be allowed to possess would be too low.

“We need full decriminalization which means no sanctions, no halfway measures. We need full decriminalization with no threshold, meaning that all small drug possession should be decriminalized,” Tao says.

“We said that even if we do need thresholds in this plan, they need to be as high as possible to make sure that drug users actually benefit from reduced violence and search from police.”

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So, when the proposed thresholds were submitted to the feds — three grams for powder cocaine, two grams for opioids, 1.5. grams for crystal meth and other amphetamines, 1 gram for crack cocaine — Tao says the lack of input from people with lived experience was immediately, glaringly apparent.

“We looked at those numbers and we brought them to our membership here at VANDU. The city claims that through the data that they crunched that this is three days worth of use. Our members laughed at that, it was actually closer to a morning’s worth of use for most people,” Tao says.

“We’ve done our own community study to actually prove that threshold amounts for possession should be much higher. This is the consequence when you don’t actually include drug users in the making of drug policy.”

‘We’re not being listened to’

Tao says by the time they were invited to the table all the major decisions had been made, leaving the organization with no choice but to withdraw.

“After these few weeks of belated consultation, we’re just tired. We can not do this anymore. We’re not being listened to, we’re being tokenized, and as such we need to step out,” he says.

“Really what it is felt in the community is real anger and resentment over us being used as a pawn in a bigger game. This is not going to help us. We need actual deep engagement with drug users in order to make a good policy. And the city has made no move to do anything.”

The worry, according to Tao, is that a Vancouver policy shaped in large part by police will harm the people who it is ostensibly meant to help.

“We are working with a coalition of advocates and drug user organizations across the province and across Canada, who are all looking at the Vancouver model and seeing that this is a dangerous course that has been set on. If it’s not corrected immediately this could have reverberating effects, not just in Canada but across the world for bad policy. This is what happens when you exclude the people who should benefit from this policy most from its actual design,” Tao says.

Setting the threshold for possession too low, in a way that is not reflective of how people buy and use drugs, will not make people who use drugs any safer, according to Tao.

“If this is actually implemented these low thresholds will actually further empower police to profile, and search, and brutalize people in the community,” he says.

“The city says it’s a plan to de-escalate the drug war but if anything, it’s giving more power to VPD to crack down on drug users, it’s re-criminalizing not decriminalization.”

B.C. declared a public health emergency five years ago because of the increasing number of people dying after using toxic drugs, particularly opioids. More than 7,000 people have died since. In April of this year, the B.C. government announced it was going to seek a federal exemption to decriminalize drug possession.

With files from Sonia Aslam

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