B.C. liberalized its drug laws. Will that stop it from becoming ‘hell on earth’?

A person enters an outdoor supervised consumption site in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, on Thursday, May 27, 2021. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press.

  • On January 31, B.C. began a three-year experiment with decriminalizing possession of up to 2.5 grams of illegal drugs. The drugs themselves remain illegal.
  • A collaborative study between the medical journal Lancet and Stanford University pointed out drug users will come into contact with the criminal justice system regardless of the legal status of drugs.
  • The Vancouver Police Department says it already had a de facto policy of not arresting most people in possession of small amounts of drugs, and decriminalization will not meaningfully alter their tactics.

New Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim had his first spat with a federal politician when he recently criticized Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre for labelling the city’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) as “hell on earth.”

Poilievre placed the blame on the NDP and the Liberal federal government for making it that way and, however politicians choose to describe it, the area has become a magnet for disorder.

Even at the Vancouver intersection of Granville and West Georgia, a crucial transit hub several blocks away from the DTES and home to several corporate banking towers, people openly smoke crack cocaine.

The B.C. government has received a legal exemption from the federal government to decriminalize possession of up to 2.5 grams of cocaine, along with opioids and methamphetamines. As for the drugs themselves, the B.C. government has explicitly stated they remain illegal.

“Decriminalization is not legalization. This is not the same as what the federal government did with cannabis,” read a statement from Jennifer Whiteside, B.C.’s Minister of Addictions. “The safety of young people is our top priority as we implement this exemption. Possession of illegal substances on K-12 school property and at licensed child care facilities by anyone of any age will continue to be a criminal offence.”

The experiment came into effect on January 31, 2023, and is expected to last until January 31, 2026.

“Together, the federal and provincial governments will be working closely to evaluate and monitor decriminalization to ensure we’re meeting the desired outcomes and to ensure there are no unintended consequences,” said Whiteside.

Toronto is forging ahead with its own request for a similar exemption, but the situation in Vancouver could provide a blueprint for what policymakers in the GTA should expect. 

About a 15-minute walk away from Granville and West Georgia, street drugs are primarily sold on the DTES. Anybody can find the DTES without a map by following the near-permanent sound of ambulance sirens heading towards the latest overdose victim there. 

In 2021, it was estimated that two out of three homeless persons in B.C. had an addiction. In 2022, at least 2,272 people died of drug-related deaths in the province,1Of that number, 70 percent of those dying were aged 30 to 59 and 79 percent were male. and the number of assaults grew. 

The B.C. government’s official reasons for decriminalization include reducing the stigma of drug use and the barriers to support services, which includes the provision of toxin-free drugs, now widely known as “safe supply”. Decriminalization has been labelled by the provincial government as a  critical step in combatting the overdose crisis. 

Julian Somers is a Distinguished Professor of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University, specializing in homelessness, substance use and mental health, clinical psychology, and health-care reform. When writing about the failure of the War on Drugs in 1990, Somers concluded that punitive measures against drug users were ineffective and counterproductive.

However, Somers is a vocal critic of the provincial government’s approach to decriminalization and so-called “safe supply.”

“B.C. is the only place in the world that has recommended decriminalizing drugs and providing a publicly funded supply to people at risk,” said Somers over email. “Many countries and regions have reversed poisonings, and none did so by providing drugs to people.” 

One of the most-cited models for advocates of harm reduction is that of Portugal, which was once the European capital of drug addiction. While Portugal did decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs in 2001, it also invested heavily in rehabilitation and recovery. Tens of thousands of people were enrolled in rehabilitation programs.

Portugal introduced its safe supervised injection site in 2018, but only after nearly two decades of drug policies that reduced the number of heroin users by 75 percent

In 2022, the B.C. government announced a $430 million investment, equivalent to about 0.6 percent of its expenses for that year, to escalate its response to the province’s drug crisis. 

Somers pointed to a 2022 publication from the Stanford-Lancet Commission, which was formed to study North America’s growth in drug-related deaths, which stated that intoxicated people will come into contact with the criminal justice system regardless of the legal status of drugs. 

A peer-reviewed analysis of decriminalization co-authored by Somers citing the Stanford-Lancet Commission’s publication pointed out that alcohol remains legal and is associated with more violence and crime than all other drugs. According to a spokesperson for the Vancouver Police Department, decriminalization is not likely to significantly affect how its officers enforced previously illegal low-level drug crime. 

“In that sense, decriminalization of small amounts of drugs for personal use will not impact the way we operate,” said the spokesperson over email. “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.” 

The spokesperson noted the VPD is sympathetic to the challenges faced by drug addicts. 

“Decriminalization, along with safe supply and public health supports, has the potential to address harms associated with substance use, reduce stigma, prevent overdose deaths, and increase access to health and social services,” said the spokesperson. 

Another publication featured in the analysis Somers co-authored studied California’s softening of drug-related convictions and suggested that a reduction in drug-related convictions was accompanied by an increase in physical altercations among certain segments of the population.

Random violence has risen in Vancouver since the COVID-19 pandemic began, mostly on or around the DTES. Yet Vancouver is not the only city in B.C., nor is it the only one affected by the consequences of the province’s long-term surge in illegal drug use. 

Almost 1400 kilometres north of Vancouver is the small town of Terrace. Homeless and drug-addicted persons light campfires at night beside environmental consultancy offices, while others smash the storefronts of the city’s small business community. Garbage, cracked crack pipes, and used needles often litter the streets. 

All of these developments in Vancouver, Terrace, and many other B.C. cities and communities occurred without the decriminalization of drug possession. It is not an embellishment to write that many Vancouverites have seen a dead body in an alleyway on the DTES, or even on the sidewalks of busy streets like East Pender. 

Despite what Pierre Poilievre says, the DTES is not hell on earth as it’s too chilly and wet at this time of year. 

That description can be revisited in about five months when smoke from summer wildfires turns the sky orange and statistics can demonstrate if decriminalization has made Vancouver and the rest of B.C. a better place. 

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