Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart says he's encouraged by the federal health minister's commitment to work with the city after it asked that possession of small amounts of illicit drugs be decriminalized.
Stewart has received a letter from Patty Hajdu in response to city council voting unanimously in November to request an exemption to federal drug laws during the overdose crisis.
Health Canada will work with officials from the City of Vancouver and the local health authority to better understand the proposed framework, Hajdu says in the letter also addressed to Dr. Patricia Daly, the chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health.
"I am committed to our continued work to identify options that respond to the local needs of the City of Vancouver," Hajdu says. "As we work through the details of your exemption request, I will also help you explore policy measures you identify that will address and alleviate the death and suffering caused by the opioid crisis, a tragedy exacerbated by the 2019 novel coronavirus pandemic."
The federal health minister notes 184 people in the city died from overdose between last July and November alone.
Stewart said Wednesday the high number of overdose deaths during a pandemic has resulted in an "absolute catastrophe," adding that he recently lost a family member to an overdose.
"It's hard to find a family that hasn't been affected by this," he said. "That's really devastated our family."
Stewart said Vancouver will work with the police department, Vancouver Coastal Health, community groups and drug users to determine how decriminalization should be approved.
The city and the health authority are awaiting a questionnaire from the federal government seeking more details about its request, which will be returned with input from drug users, he said.
An initiative for drug users to be prescribed safer alternatives to toxic opioids on the street has been too slow to roll out, Stewart said.
Politicians from all levels of government, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.'s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe, police and addiction doctors have all called on the federal government to decriminalize small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use.
More than 6,500 people have fatally overdosed across British Columbia since the province declared a public health emergency nearly five years ago.
Sarah Blyth, executive director of the Overdose Prevention Society, said decriminalization would take the criminal element out of drug use and view addiction as a health issue.
"I see really challenging situations on the front lines every day," she said of people using potentially deadly substances as the pandemic has closed borders and cut off the traditional supply.
"It's heartbreaking. It's hard to go on not having some hope that something will happen," she said.
Blyth said decriminalization would be a big part of addressing the overdose epidemic.
"When you look at the nitty-gritty of what people are doing on the front lines and what people are dealing with, it's the only thing that really makes sense. You could talk to anyone on the front lines and they would tell you that."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 27, 2021.
Camille Bains, The Canadian Press