VANCOUVER -- As B.C.'s coroner announced the April death toll due to the ongoing overdose crisis, municipal officials unveiled the final plan for the "Vancouver model" of decriminalization.

The City of Vancouver outlined its proposal to Health Canada in a news release Tuesday. The city will be asking for an exemption to federal drug possession rules.

Essentially, the exemption would decriminalize the possession of a small supply of drugs including heroin and meth. The exemption would only apply to "simple possession," and anyone found with a supply large enough to suggest trafficking would still be considered in violation of the federal Controlled Drug and Substances Act.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart outlined in the city's statement the reason for the approach: "We know addressing the devastating overdose crisis and saving lives requires fully embracing a health-centred approach."

It's a message similar to that of B.C.'s chief coroner, who announced earlier the same day that April had been another record-breaking month for deaths due to illicit drug overdose.

Lisa Lapointe said at least 176 people died that month, bringing the total so far this year to 680. 

With just the first four months of data included in the latest figure, that total is already more than halfway to last year's record toll of 1,176 deaths.

The health regions most impacted by the overdose crisis are in B.C.'s Lower Mainland, especially in Vancouver and Surrey.

Along with the data, Lapointe issued a warning about the increasing toxicity of the province's supply, and said the best approach is harm reduction and recovery services.

Officials have said numerous times that decriminalizing smaller amounts may encourage people to seek support in times of need by reducing the stigma of use.

Vancouver is the first jurisdiction in the country to ask for such an exemption from Health Canada, the city said.

PROPOSED THRESHOLDS AND CRITICISM

Its plan includes a specific threshold, based on the substance in question. Those found to have a smaller amount than that threshold will face no criminal sanctions for possession.

Last month, that aspect of the plan drew criticism from a coalition of advocates who warned Vancouver's plan could do more harm than good.

At that time, the group said in a letter to the working groups involved that the thresholds outlined in the initial plan used to define simple possession were too small.

Calling the model "phony," the coalition of 15 organizations wrote that it refused "to be tokenized in petty political bids… We want decriminalization – but on our terms, not the terms of police and politicians."

PROPOSED VOLUMES

The plan submitted to Health Canada includes thresholds for 15 substances, according to the city.

The proposed thresholds are as follows:

  • Opioids, including heroin and fentanyl: two grams
  • Cocaine: three grams
  • Crack cocaine: 10 rocks (or one gram)
  • Amphetamine: 1.5 grams
  • Dilaudid: two grams
  • Kadian: 7.5 grams
  • M-eslon: 7.5 grams
  • Oxycodone: two grams
  • Methadone liquid: one gram
  • Suboxone: 120 milligrams
  • Clonazepam: 80 milligrams
  • Diazepam: 400 milligrams
  • Ativan: 80 milligrams
  • Prescription stimulants: 500 milligrams
  • MDMA: two grams
  • LSD: 30 units
  • Psilocybin mushrooms: 20 grams
  • Ketamine: three grams
  • GHB: five grams

But in the statement on Tuesday, the city's public health consultant said these thresholds are "only a starting point."

Ted Bruce said it's likely the amounts will change as more data becomes available, with input from people "with lived experience," to ensure the model actually works.

In its proposal, the city says these thresholds will be based on local research on use and possession patterns, and that the plan is that they will be "sufficiently high to provide significant coverage of personal drug use."

The city says the volume should account for a multi-day supply for an individual.

'HEALTH-FOCUSSED APPROACH'

The city says this will "pave the way instead for a health-focussed approach to substance use."

City staff say the approach would lead to fewer seizures from police, and there would be no fines or jail time involved, but it would also include voluntary referrals for support programs. This contact would be made by health-care workers, not police, the city says.

Those found to be in possession of amounts over the threshold can still have their substances seized and may be charged. The intent is to destigmatize personal use while still penalizing dealers.

B.C.'s provincial government plans to apply for a similar exemption to the federal health ministry. https://bc.ctvnews.ca/b-c-to-request-federal-exemption-to-decriminalize-personal-drug-possession-1.5387199

The full proposal can be read on the city's website