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Ex-Vancouver mayor's book describes political work to decriminalize drugs in B.C.

Kennedy Stewart describes how decriminalization of small drug possession came to be.
Kennedy Stewart sees the decriminalization of street drugs as a health policy and one that "gets police out of the lives of drug users."

Former Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart says his new book will pull the curtain back on the political work required to decriminalize personal amounts of street drugs — a provincial government policy that comes into force on Jan. 31 across B.C.

“I'm somebody that was in the middle of all those discussions and efforts to get decriminalization done. I think it’s a story that needs to be told because there's a lot more work to do in that area. And it's really for people to understand how political change happens in Canada,” said Stewart.

Stewart, author of “Decrim: How we decriminalized drugs in British Columbia,” says while the policy is the groundwork of input from drug users, health policy researchers, police officers and medical doctors, it required political will at all three Canadian levels of government to emulate likewise experiments in the United States and Europe.

“It kind of pulls back the curtain in the Emerald City (Vancouver) and shows you what's really happening in terms of how policy has changed in Canada,” he said.

Stewart said when he became mayor in 2018, he had an overdose taskforce.

“Every week, I had an email that told me how many people died of overdoses in the previous week; every week, 14, 10, eight, two, 12, every week; and then the number of overdoses that the fire department attended to; 150 to 175, every week,” said Stewart, who started his one and only term in fall 2018, as drug toxicity and overdose deaths skyrocketed, largely attributed by the BC Coroners Service to a drug supply laced with deadly amounts of fentanyl.

Initially, under Stewart, the City of Vancouver sought approval to decriminalize personal drug possession.

“The city's application was essential to that moving forward, and that's how drug policies really always have been changed; local activists push local governments to help, and then eventually senior governments do something. And so, that's the story here. I just think because I was in so many one-on-one conversations with the prime minister, with the federal ministers, provincial ministers, I think it's worth it to tell people how that occurred, why we landed at the policy we did,” said Stewart.

The upcoming decriminalization of possession of less than 2.5 grams of cocaine, opioids, crack, MDMA and meth, Stewart said, is controversial on the political spectrum. He says he's been in receipt of criticism from right-wing social conservatives and the far-left wing as well, for not going far enough.

But Stewart says this policy alone took a significant amount of his time, nor does he view it as a panacea for the overdose and toxicity crisis. Stewart also supports a legal and safe supply of such drugs, which has yet to occur.

Stewart sees such decriminalization as a health policy and one that “gets police out of the lives of drug users.”

“That's why it's so important. And you're moving health-care services into certain places,” he said.

Stewart said the hope is the fatalities will at least be lowered by the policy.

“The Vancouver Police Department (VPD) really doesn't arrest or charge people for possession, you know, for drug possession,” he acknowledged.

“But what they do is seize the drugs. And what happens with drug users that have to use drugs multiple times a day, this enforces terrible, risky behaviour. And so, this will directly help in Vancouver save lives by the police no longer being allowed to seize those drugs under 2.5 grams,” he said.

“We need to move this out of the criminal justice system, and we need to move it into the health-care system, no matter how uncomfortable it is to do this. From my mind, this is all caused by governments; all this is something that's preventable, and it's one of the biggest policy disasters in the city's history, in this country's history,” said Stewart.

Asked about what he observed in terms of higher-level crackdowns on drug importation, manufacturing and trafficking, Stewart suggested no such efforts will make a difference.

“We've been trying to do that for 100 years, and it's just impossible. I mean, if you manage to crack down and stop one kind of drug, another kind of drug (appears), because this is all about the reason people use drugs. And most of it is to do with trauma. And really, it's psychological and physiological problems that people are having, which were exacerbated by the pandemic. So, you know, but we don't have these kinds of honest conversations, right?” said Stewart.

Asked about what could happen to police resources, if not being put into cracking down on small drug possession, Stewart hinted at another political challenge.

“We're so over-policed. You know, we have so many police compared to our level of crime,” he said, noting U.S. mayors he’s spoken to have far greater incidents of violent crime, including homicide but similar budgets to VPD.

“People will, of course, scream bloody murder, and say that I'm a heretic for saying that, but we have so many more problems that that money can be better spent on,” he said. (In 2021, crime in Vancouver went down, with the most significant drops related to break-ins to businesses, homes and vehicles.)

Stewart lost the election to Mayor Ken Sim.