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VPD claims drug seizures ‘dropped-off’ post-decriminalization

Vancouver police says they cut down on seizures of drugs under 2.5 grams since B.C. decriminalized the possession of small amounts of drugs. But as Kier Junos reports, some advocates say it hasn’t stopped drug users users from being unduly searched.

The Vancouver Police Department says its drug seizures of personal amounts saw a “dramatic drop-off” after decriminalization began last year.

In an update Tuesday, the VPD said it had “confirmed” that point, “with officers no longer confiscating drugs weighing less than 2.5 grams that are covered by the exemption and possessed for personal use,” post-Jan. 31, 2023.

The department claims that in the first nine months of the pilot, officers “made no possession seizures under 2.5 grams” for substances outlined in the decriminalization exemption.

In that time period — from February to October of 2023 — the VPD says these seizures “decreased 100 per cent” compared to the previous four-year average.

“In that same period, total drug possession seizures dropped 76 per cent in Vancouver compared to the previous four-year average,” the VPD said Tuesday.

Insp. Phil Heard, who oversees the VPD’s Drug Unit, says the department has “understood that substance use requires a health-led approach, as opposed to a criminal justice one,” for years.

“Before decriminalization, VPD officers rarely made arrests or recommended criminal charges against persons found with small amounts of illegal substances, unless there were aggravating factors,” Heard said.

“Still, there were times when police were required by law to seize and destroy small amounts of illicit substances from drug users which we recognize often led to unintended harms. Thankfully, the Health Canada exemption has eliminated these requirements.”

The VPD says more than 1,110 officers have completed training to “familiarize themselves with the Health Canada exemption,” with all new recruits receiving the training when hired.

The topic of drug seizures has been raised multiple times in recent weeks, after concerns about the diversion of safer supply were raised by the RCMP.

As police in B.C. and across Canada showed off recent drug busts and highlighted efforts to take illicit substances off the black market, experts in public health and harm reduction have said these kinds of seizures do more harm than good.

Advocates say searches can be problematic

Critics of the VPD are pointing out that the police’s own data — reviewed by CityNews — shows much the opposite, and police have increased drug seizures in the time since decriminalization. But Inspector Phil Heard asserts that the interpretations of this data have been incorrect.

For the drug seizures that did happen, he says up to six different items could have been confiscated during each seizure and he couldn’t immediately provide how many arrests were involved or the motives of the suspects in the seizures, like if they were drug trafficking or were holding onto the drugs for personal use.

Martin Steward, a board member with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, says he believes the police are likely cutting down on smaller drug seizures.

But he adds when police check to see if someone is holding an amount of drugs below the legal limit, it becomes a doorway for getting searched by police for other illegal substances that aren’t part of the Health Canada exemption, and more.

“Giving us a legal limit is just an excuse to get pulled over and get checked for anything that you have on you, whether that be a weapon, whether it be any other narcotic that’s not listed,” Steward said. “There’s so much that’s not listed in that decrim, that they could find on you, and you’d still get the same fine because it doesn’t fall under the limit.”

Advocates for people using drugs have pointed out problems with the 2.5 gram legal limit – which they believe is too low – and even causes safety issues.

“When they go to buy, they buy what they normally get anyway, then they go back to the house, and they’re like, ‘Okay, I’m only allowed to have 2.5 – I better use more than I normally would, so if a cop does knock on the door because somebody saw me come home, and they see the paraphernalia, they don’t grab it up and put it on the scale and see that it’s over 2.5 (grams),” Steward said.

Under the decriminalization pilot project, people aged 18 and up cannot be arrested or charged, and their drugs won’t be seized, if they’re found in possession of up to 2.5 grams of illicit substances, including cocaine, methamphetamine, MDMA, and opioids such as heroin, fentanyl, and morphine.

B.C. became the first in Canada to decriminalize a small amount of illicit drugs after Health Canada approved the province’s request to be granted an exemption from the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in May 2022.

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