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COMMENTARY: As Vancouver’s drug crisis continues, is decriminalization the answer?

Click to play video 'Vancouver aims to decriminalize simple drug possession' Vancouver aims to decriminalize simple drug possession
WATCH: (Nov. 18) Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart is calling on Ottawa to allow the city to decriminalize simple drug possession, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to exacerbate the opioid crisis and overdose deaths rise. Jordan Armstrong breaks down the plan, and reactions. – Nov 18, 2020

In a city with one of Canada’s worst overdose crises, Vancouver now wants to be the first municipality in the country to decriminalize all illicit drugs.

The call came this week from Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who said it makes no sense to criminally prosecute drug addicts.

“It’s not a criminal issue, it’s a health issue,” said Stewart, who got support from the local public health officer, appointed by the provincial NDP government.

Read more: Plan unveiled to make Vancouver first jurisdiction in Canada to decriminalize simple drug possession

But backing from a municipal council and a provincial government is not enough to decriminalize drugs currently declared illegal by Canada.

That would require action by the federal Liberal government, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has not been high on the idea.

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“In any crisis like this, there is not one silver bullet,” Trudeau said when asked about decriminalization.

Perhaps Trudeau is worried about the suggestion by some critics that decriminalizing drugs would lead to even more drug use.

But Stewart said decriminalizing drugs like cocaine, fentanyl and methamphetamine would reduce the marginalization and shame felt by addicts, and possibly encourage more users to seek out treatment and recovery programs.

“It is time to end the stigma around substance use, help connect more of our neighbours to health care and save lives,” he said.

Read more: Canada’s other health-care crisis: the epidemic of fatal drug overdoses

As is often the case, the situation is not as simple as it sounds.

For one thing, Vancouver police said they stopped charging people with simple drug possession years ago.

“We do not target drug users,” Insp. Bill Stearn of the Vancouver Police Department told me.

But addicts in the city’s drug-riddled Downtown Eastside — the poorest neighbourhood in Canada — tell a different story.

Advocates for Vancouver drug users say police still charge people with drug-trafficking offences, even when caught with only small amounts.

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And while cops might not charge users with simple drug possession, they often seize drugs found in users’ possession.

“They take their drugs and it just starts the cycle all over again,” said Guy Felicella, a former homeless addict who now helps other users.

Then there’s the problem of the city’s poisoned drug supply. Laced with deadly fentanyl, illegal street drugs are causing an epidemic of overdoses and deaths.

Advocates are demanding pharmaceutical-grade drugs be made available to users by prescription to stop the carnage.

While the fight over “safe” legal drugs rages on, there is a growing problem in the city of homeless drug addicts.

In Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood, more than 400 tents have been erected in a local park, creating the largest homeless encampment in the country.

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In that neighbourhood and several others, residents are complaining about increases in drug-fuelled crime.

In response, the Vancouver Police Department set up a neighbourhood street-crime unit to deal with the trouble.

The Neighbourhood Response Team has scooped up more than 50 illegal weapons and responded to more than 400 calls for service in the first two weeks.

Welcomed by many neighbourhood residents sick of drug-driven crime, the police unit is now under attack by activists who say it unfairly targets homeless addicts.

“Overdosing isn’t a criminal issue,” said Meenakshi Mannoe of Pivot Legal, one of the groups calling for the new street-crime unit to be shut down.

Read more: Vancouver police seize $3M in drugs, say crime groups have ‘adapted’ to COVID-19 crisis

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But Deputy Police Chief Howard Chow said much of the unit’s work is responding to complaints of crimes committed against homeless people.

“People who are homeless are 19 times more likely to be victims of crime compared to the rest of the population,” he said.

It all presents a difficult challenge for Vancouver, a beautiful city with an ugly underside of drug addiction and crime.

The mayor may discover that calling for drug decriminalization will generate lots of news headlines, but little real progress in solving the city’s worsening crisis.

Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at mike@cknw.com and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews​.