Former Vancouver mayor reflects on drug decriminalization and electoral defeat in new memoir
Posted August 26, 2023 1:03 pm.
Last Updated August 26, 2023 2:53 pm.
Earlier this year, B.C. took a bold, and to some, controversial step in addressing its unregulated toxic drug crisis. As of Jan. 31, the province started allowing adults to legally carry small amounts of illicit drugs — including opioids, cocaine, crystal meth, and MDMA — for personal use as part of a three-year federal trial.
How that came to pass is the subject of the new book Decrim: How We Decriminalized Drugs in British Columbia by former Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart, now the director of the Centre for Public Policy Research at Simon Fraser University.
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“Surprisingly, the folks that really kicked this off were the police,” he recalled.
“Drug users have been pushing for decriminalization forever, so we don’t want to undermine that important work. But it was in, I think, 2018 that Chief Adam Palmer, the chief constable here in Vancouver, who was the head of the National Association of Police Chiefs, they came out with a very important national report calling for the decriminalization of drugs.
“And then shortly after that, [B.C. Provincial Health Officer] Dr. Bonnie Henry came out with a report saying that we needed to decriminalize drugs. And that made it to the federal level. Then Prime Minister Trudeau had appointed Patty Hajdu as the health minister who had worked on harm reduction in the past. And she called me up and said, ‘Look, our lawyers here, the federal lawyers, have found a way for the city to go it alone and decriminalize drugs. Do you want to do this?’ And I said, ‘Sure!’ And we worked on it.”
Stewart also talks about the challenges he faced, particularly his non-existent working relationship with then-B.C. premier John Horgan, whose government was working on its own decriminalization application.
“You know, John and I had had a run-in over the Trans Mountain pipeline,” he recalled. “I was a huge opponent of that [as MP for Burnaby South], I was arrested for blockading work on Burnaby Mountain. And Horgan was a proponent for a long time for this pipeline, and I think that’s where we got into early difficulties, right as far back as 2014.”
One such difficulty was when Horgan told Stewart to “f*** off” and quickly hung up the phone during a conference call between B.C. and federal NDP officials not long after Stewart first expressed his opposition to the pipeline, a story Stewart tells in the book.
Stewart was also challenged by the people his policies were supposed to help. Today, he acknowledges how some drug user advocates may not think his decriminalization efforts went far enough.
“Right now, you can carry about two and a half grams of heroin or cocaine, but they wanted up to 10 times that amount, which just wasn’t going to fly with anybody,” he explained. “So, when they didn’t get what they wanted, there was a lot of anger. And so, you can see you’re kind of walking with fire on both sides of the situation.”
“With drug policy advocates, many of them are knee-deep in pain all day every day. Expressing anger is something I would expect. They’re not really the ones that have to do more work. It’s the rest of us.”
Decrim also provides a blow-by-blow account of Stewart’s defeat in the October 2022 civic election.
“Powerful new groups opposed to decriminalization and other progressive policies had emerged to actively oppose my 2022 re-election bid, with Ken Sim gleefully jumping to the front of the parade, pied-pipering his way to victory playing law-and-order tunes. Get ready for Cruel Vancouver.”
Citing the decampment of East Hastings as an example of the new “cruel” attitude at City Hall, Stewart saves some of his harshest words for his successor.
“It’s not just about you having a good time and in fact, it’s anything but that most of the time. It’s not that fun,” said Stewart. “If [he thinks] it’s just, you know, doing more of the same, ignoring the folks that need the most help and building lots of expensive condos, I don’t know if that’s what the city wants, but we’ll see. It’s up to him.”
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Ultimately, Stewart hopes Sim proves him wrong.
“You can see him taking his victory lap in the first year here, shot-gunning beers on stage, and touring all over the place. That’s pretty common for rookie politicians,” he allowed. “I saw that with Trudeau in 2015. He had a big victory lap as a prime minister, but then he rolled up his sleeves and started to get to work and I really hope that Mr. Sim does that.”
One of the goals of Decrim is to show other cities this kind of policy change is possible at the local level.
“In some ways, I think I’m the only person that can really tell this story because I was an insider on the whole bit of it from the federal-provincial level. And there’s not too many folks that want to talk about it,” said Stewart. “So that’s why I put it in this book.”
“People in Toronto, people in Montreal have been contacting me because they are also putting in applications to the federal government to decriminalize drugs. So, this is a bit of a ‘How do you do it?’ outline. So, hopefully [by] helping them, if we get enough pressure nationally, then maybe B.C. doesn’t have to take the risk all on their own and this can be more of a national program.”
The book is not only a candid look at drug policy, but also at the delicate work of achieving compromise with various stakeholders, as well as moving ahead the conversation when it comes to harm reduction.
“As [advocate] Karen Ward, somebody I quoted in my book, says, ‘It has to be about more than just not being dead.’ Not being dead should not be the standard where we’re after. It has to be helping folks have rich and loving lives.”
Decrim: How We Decriminalized Drugs in British Columbia is available from Harbour Publishing. Proceeds from the book will go to the Overdose Prevention Society.