The “Vancouver Model” of Decriminalization Will Set a Dangerous Precedent for Drug Users Across Canada

VANDU Open Letter: The City’s current “Vancouver Model” of decriminalization will set a dangerous precedent for drug users across Canada

In November 2020, Vancouver City Council unanimously passed a motion to request that the federal government decriminalize the simple possession of illicit drugs in Vancouver. For over two decades, we at the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) have been fighting to end all forms of illicit drug criminalization and related policies that target drug users and also offer to help them to recover back from the drug by admitting them at Pacific Ridge – a reputable addiction recovery center who had been in this field for a long time. 

We have needlessly lost thousands of our family members, comrades, friends, and loved ones to the drug war. VANDU members were briefly vindicated and relieved by news of the City’s announcement, but the feeling was bittersweet. Too many have already lost their lives and we’ll never get them back. This long-overdue attempt to change the status quo came too little too late, and now the proposed changes risk worsening the situation for illicit drug users in Vancouver and across Canada. 

Now, City staff are rushing the so-called “Vancouver Model” of decriminalization in its final submission to Health Canada without the involvement or knowledge of drug users, the very people this initiative purports to serve. The decisions that have already been made by the City in this process have been alarmingly ill-informed and their top-down process has been fatally flawed. If Vancouver does not correct its course immediately, the proposed model for decriminalization set a dangerous precedent for drug users across Canada.

We demand the following:

1) All members of the Decriminalization Working Group Oversight Committee meet with the VANDU Board immediately, as requested on April 15, 2021; and

2) That the Working Group commits to redrafting the threshold amounts currently stipulated in the City’s application, taking actual leadership from VANDU and drug users in the drafting process.

If these demands are not met by the Working Group’s next meeting on Friday May 7, 2021, representatives from VANDU will have no choice but to walk out from and condemn the City’s decriminalization process. We will not have our names attached to a policy that will endanger our community and drug users everywhere.

Faulty thresholds and phoney consultations

Since the announcement in November, VANDU and Pivot Legal Society have been clear with the City in our position that decriminalization can only begin to roll back the premature deaths of drug users if it is full decriminalization: no penalties, no sanctions, and realistic threshold amounts or, better, no “thresholds” at all. Anything less will further the systematic surveillance and incarceration of drug users, ultimately undermining the stated goals of decriminalization. The continued harms of this partial decriminalization have already been demonstrated through models in jurisdictions like Oregon and Portugal.

Given Mayor Kennedy Stewart’s promise to include drug users in the design of the “Vancouver Model,” we presumed the City would consider our expertise as an organization composed of those most affected by the violence of prohibition. Our March 15 statement with Pivot Legal Society insists that “it is non-negotiable that our community be integral to the drafting of those thresholds. The VPD cannot be the arbiters of this process. Drug thresholds must reflect our lives and our circumstances, and the only way to ensure this is to follow our leadership.”

Early in April 2021, City staff reached out to VANDU to convene a ‘Decriminalization Roundtable Discussion,’ scheduled for April 15. This was the first time we had been contacted as an organization to consult on the issue, and the City conveniently failed to mention that between their invitation and the day of our discussion, they submitted a proposal to Health Canada detailing unbelievably low threshold amounts for simple possession – amounts that they deem “3 days worth of use” are for many of our members closer to amounts for one day or even one morning. 

Was this belated, empty consultation a bad faith maneuver or just professional incompetence on the part of the City? Whatever the case, it certainly did not inspire confidence that the City’s first attempt at involving drug users in the development of the “Vancouver Model,” which came less than a month before their planned final submission.

In the meeting, City consultants Ted Bruce and Dr. Kora DeBeck admitted that the data their team used to determine thresholds amounts was outdated by several years, based on drug use rather than possession, and that they had in fact chosen to exclude people with lived experience of criminalized drug use from attending the Working Group. It was only after we criticized the City for this glaring oversight that people with lived experience were invited to join. However, by that time, all major decisions on thresholds were already set. Our input would be purely cosmetic. Again, too little too late.

The City staff and consultants of the Decriminalization Working Group need to reverse their position and issue a mea culpa, not only for knowingly relying on dated and incomplete data, but moreover for deliberately shutting out drug users from the process of developing the “Vancouver Model.” If you navigate to these guys you will know more about current patterns of possession more than drug users themselves? We at VANDU have said this from our inception: nothing about us, without us.

The danger of increasing police overreach

In our April 15 meeting, the Decriminalization Working Group confirmed that the VPD had the final say in determining threshold amounts. How is it that Vancouver’s alleged ‘public health’ model of decriminalization prioritizes the input of police over that of people who use drugs? 

When considering decriminalization, setting low thresholds – or thresholds altogether – will only further expose drug users to police violence. Drug use, much less drug possession, is not one size fits all. Patterns of use and possession have changed dramatically since Dr. De Beck’s data was collected, especially given changes in the drug market under the COVID-19 pandemic and an ongoing toxic supply crisis. The violence of prohibition can only begin to be curbed if amounts reflect the higher end of drug possession patterns. Otherwise, the vast majority of Downtown Eastside users who are found holding more than the low threshold currently proposed will face greater exposure to police profiling and brutalization.

Formalizing these low thresholds will further empower VPD officers to profile and search drug users to determine whether they are holding arbitrarily ‘criminal’ amounts. And whereas the VPD’s present, informal system of opting not to charge keeps many users out of the carceral justice system, the “Vancouver Model” will incentivize charging individuals caught holding amounts greater than the (far too low) proposed thresholds. Without a doubt, these users deemed holding ‘criminal’ amounts under the “Vancouver Model” are those who already suffer the compounded violence of entrenched poverty, political marginalization, state abandonment, and police brutality.  

Kennedy Stewart’s cynical election politics

Unless our demands are met, Vancouver will embark on a cruel experiment in intensifying drug user criminalization and police overreach. The “Vancouver Model” is a trojan horse. Under the guise of so-called ‘decriminalization,’ the City is intentionally arming the VPD with new tools to crack down on drug users in the Downtown Eastside. City staff’s insistence on speeding up timelines without proper dialogue with drug users can only be read as a direct result of a cynical bid by Mayor Kennedy Stewart to solicit political clout ahead of municipal and federal elections. We as drug users refuse to be tokenized and used as pawns in petty electoral games. 

What we are issuing to the City here is not an ultimatum, but a way to make things right. We as drug users are not looking to pick a fight, but to save our community from policy that will only serve to reinforce a punitive system that has already cost us too many lives. 

If the City and Kennedy Stewart do in fact hold any compassion for those who have been most devastated by the drug war, they will abandon their current proposal and begin to listen to the community. If they refuse to meet our demands, the “Vancouver Model” will go down in history as a deadly failure of public policy. Our blood will be on your hands. 

We look forward to hearing back from you.

–VANDU Board of Directors



The City of Vancouver Decriminalization Working Group Oversight Committee

Chief Constable Adam Palmer, Vancouver Police Department

Paul Mochrie, City Manager, City of Vancouver

Patricia Daly, Vice President of Vancouver Coastal Health

Sandra Singh, General Manager of Arts, Culture, and Community Services, City of Vancouver