Decriminalizing simple possession of illicit drugs in Vancouver

We're seeking to decriminalize simple possession of illicit drugs in Vancouver. We recognize that substance use and the overdose crisis is a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue.

Decriminalization is part of a comprehensive effort to responding to the overdose crisis, which has taken more than 1,500 people in Vancouver over the last five years.

Request for exemption

In May 2021, we submitted the final proposal (3.5 MB) to Health Canada requesting an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) under the provision of section 56(1).

If granted, this exemption would mean that people found in possession of controlled substances under a certain threshold amount within municipal boundaries would not be subject to criminal sanctions. Instead, people would be offered to voluntarily be connected with services, and their substances for personal use and paraphernalia would not be confiscated.

The submission complements local and provincial investments in safe supply, overdose prevention and harm reduction, treatment, outreach, housing, and Indigenous healing and wellness.

Proposed Vancouver Model

The proposed Vancouver Model is based on three main components:

  • Personal use threshold
  • A voluntary referral system to services
  • Decision-making

We are committed to engaging with the community and our partners to explore and further define these three components.

The model was developed by the City of Vancouver, Vancouver Police Department, Vancouver Coastal Health, addictions doctors, and research scientists. Conversations with people who use drugs and representatives of groups that face disproportionate discrimination and exclusion have informed the model.

The Provincial Health Officer, Dr Bonnie Henry , and international research have indicated a compelling case for decriminalizing substance use. It is an important step to stopping unprecedented deaths by reducing stigma, increasing access to services and supports, and lessening the long-lasting impacts of criminalization on the lives of people who use drugs.

There is broad support for this work from the police, community groups, health professionals, Indigenous communities, and people who use drugs. This policy initiative is unprecedented in Canada, and more than 65% of people living in Vancouver support the decriminalization of all illegal drugs.

There is also a comprehensive range of mental health and substance use services that will help support the changes needed, such as safe consumption sites and access to safe supply. 

Simple possession of drugs in Vancouver

Timeline

  • April 2016

    Provincial Health Officer declares a public health emergency.

  • November 2020

    City Council unanimously passes a motion to ask the federal government to decriminalize the simple possession of illicit drugs in Vancouver by seeking an exemption from the CDSA under the provision of section 56(1).

  • January 2021

    Health Canada agrees to begin formal discussions with the City regarding decriminalization.

  • March 2021

    The City puts forward a preliminary submission to Health Canada seeking an exemption.

  • April 2021

    The City provided an updated submission to Health Canada that outlines proposed threshold levels.

  • April and May 2021

    Public engagement is conducted to discuss risks and mitigation strategies for this work.

  • Late May 2021

    The City provides the final submission to Health Canada that outlines in detail the proposed model and the context and rationale that has shaped it, as well as letters of support for the model, and the implementation plan for if an exemption is granted.