Vancouver city council unanimously backed a motion seeking to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illegal drugs on Wednesday.
The move comes as the city looks for out-of-the box solutions to a toxic street drug crisis with a mounting death toll.
The vote came the same day that the BC Coroners Service reported 162 overdose deaths in the province in October, about five per day.
Vancouver does not have the power to decriminalize drug possessions, but will instead now seek an exemption from the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
The motion will see Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart consult with Vancouver Coastal Health, before writing to the federal ministers of health, public safety and emergency preparedness, and justice and attorney general.
“I am grateful to council for unanimously passing this important motion and setting Vancouver on a path to fully embracing a health-focused approach to substance use in the City of Vancouver,” Stewart said in a statement.
“If approved by the federal government, we will begin a robust process to determine how decriminalization will be implemented in Vancouver.
“This process will involve the City of Vancouver, Vancouver Coastal Health, the Vancouver Police Department, community groups and advocates, as well as people with lived experience.”
If the plan is approved, Vancouver would be the first jurisdiction in Canada to decriminalize street drugs for personal possession for medical purposes.
An exemption from the act would also echo the strategy employed by Vancouver Coastal Health and the Portland Hotel Society in Vancouver’s pioneering 2003 move to open Insite, North America’s first supervised injection site.
The motion states decriminalization is a “necessary next step to reduce the stigma associated with substance use and encourage people at risk to access lifesaving harm reduction and treatment services.”
The move is backed by B.C. Premier John Horgan, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, and Vancouver Coastal Health chief medical health officer Dr. Patricia Daly.
Earlier this year, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police also called for the decriminalization of simple possession of illicit drugs.
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