Blue Line

Small drug seizures down in Vancouver post-decriminalization, police say

March 26, 2024  By The Canadian Press

Mar. 26, 2024, Vancouver, B.C. – Small drug seizures in Vancouver dropped at a “dramatic” rate after decriminalization came into effect in British Columbia, the city’s police department says.

Insp. Phil Heard, who oversees the department’s drug unit, told a news conference Tuesday that reports that claimed otherwise are “patently false.”

Researchers Tyson Singh and Liam Michaud wrote an article about the data last month in online media outlet The Maple, outlining how small seizures of drugs appeared to increase after decimalization.

Singh and Michaud are both PhD candidates at Simon Fraser and York universities, respectively. They claimed the data show seizures of drugs in quantities at or below 2.5 grams increased by 34 per cent.

But, Heard said during the first nine months of the program officers did not seize any drugs under 2.5 grams, the threshold outlined in Health Canada’s three-year exemption.

He said data released by the department under the Freedom of Information Act had multiple “limitations,” and drug seizures following decriminalization averaged out to about 80 grams.

“Claims that VPD officers are seizing more drugs at or below the 2.5-gram threshold are clearly false,” he said. “Such conclusions are the result of recklessly ignoring clear warnings that accompanied the data.”

The data, Heard said, showed seizures of small amounts of drugs in individual packages, which could be part of the same seizure.

Singh, who also works as a social worker, said Tuesday that the Vancouver Police Department’s claims of no longer seizing small amounts of drugs since decriminalization “should not be taken seriously.”

He said there are many looming questions around the data, including why there appeared to be an uptick in seizures of small amounts in the six months after decriminalization came into effect.

“They are an opaque organization who don’t have a lot of accountability,” Singh said. “We did ask them when we wrote the story if they would like to clarify anything, which they didn’t, except to say that they don’t believe that trends can be seen this way.”

Singh said he believed the news conference Tuesday was part of a long-standing “public relations” campaign to justify bloated police budgets.

He said he wasn’t contacted by police about the news conference, and was working as a front-line social worker as it was happening.

Singh said he stopped in at the headquarters of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users “to hear what people had to say” about police claims of no longer seizing small amounts of drugs.

“Everyone laughed because they’ve all experienced seizures,” Singh said.

Drug-possession seizures, regardless of weight, dropped 76 per cent in the city compared with the previous four-year average for the same time period, Heard added.

“Our main goal of decriminalization is to break down real or perceived barriers between the police and people who use drugs,” he said. “The data clearly shows that our officers are committed to supporting the implementation of decriminalization and its overarching goal to take a health-led approach to substance use as opposed to a criminal justice one.”

The exemption began Jan. 31, 2023, and decriminalized possession of small amounts of opioids, including heroin and fentanyl, as well as cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA, in quantities of 2.5 grams or less.

One of the key goals of the program was to reduce the stigma on drug users amid an overdose crisis that has claimed almost 14,000 lives in B.C. since a public-health emergency was declared in April 2016.

Heard said all front-line officers took part in online training before the pilot and all new recruits are required to do the same.

He said officers rarely made arrests before decriminalization, “unless there were aggravating factors.”

“Even before decriminalization, but even more so now that it’s in effect, our enforcement efforts are really focused on those people doing the most harm, the people importing, manufacturing, high-level trafficking,” Heard said.

He said concerns over an increase in public drug use after decriminalization aren’t reflected in the department’s data.

“We’re mindful of complaints that come in from the public and we haven’t seen an increase,” he said. “We’ve actually seen a decrease in public complaints around public consumption, but that doesn’t mean that circumstances don’t arise where people rightfully have concerns.”

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