By Taylor Fleming, Michelle Olding, and Samara Mayer of CSSDP Vancouver

April 14th 2021, marked five years since an overdose public health emergency was declared in British Columbia. During these five years, over 7000 people have died from toxic drug poisonings including 1100 youth. In Vancouver, the Drug User Liberation Front (DULF) marked this occasion by distributing tested heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine, both protesting the inaction in addressing the toxic drug supply, and offering an example of a community-based model of safe supply filling the gaps of the current (clinical) approach. Surrounding this anniversary, there have also been a number of  provincial and municipal announcements that have major implications for drug policy reform and youth who use drugs. In this blog post, we discuss what these developments mean for youth, highlighting where youth are absent, and areas where we must do better to advance sensible, evidence-based drug policies for all British Columbians.

Big news in BC: decrim, treatment, and a bit of youth representation

Following mounting public pressure and years of community-driven advocacy and public health recommendations, the BC government has finally set its sight on decriminalization, recently announcing the intention to formally seek a province-wide exemption to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Criminalization is at the root of all substance use-related harms, and a successful exemption-request will undoubtedly benefit the health and well-being of people who use drugs in BC, but we still don’t know enough about how the province envisions decrim to know how it will impact youth. If cannabis legalization and municipal decrim efforts are anything to go on, we expect youth to be excluded from the engagement process and that youth under 19 will be absent from the final application submitted to Health Canada. 

During the same decrim announcement, funding was also allocated to overdose response and prevention, including expanding overdose prevention sites to include safer inhalation spaces. This will be important for addressing overdose vulnerability among young people, especially since young people are more likely to smoke their drugs, and therefore haven’t really had any safe, sanctioned place to use before. However, many existing overdose prevention services are designed for and serve adults, and can be inaccessible to youth whether due to location, physical design, age restrictions, or social dynamics. For these reasons and more, youth-centred spaces remain sorely lacking.

While youth were not prioritized for harm reduction and overdose prevention services within the Province’s 2021 budget, they were when it comes to drug use treatment and prevention (anything to get youth off the drugs!). Specifically, the BC government renewed its commitment to doubling the number of youth treatment beds province-wide, an announcement first made last summer. There’s no denying that more treatment beds are great for those who want them, but we also note that Provincial commitments to expanding youth services seem to imply that abstinence is the ultimate goal. We doubt that this funding for treatment includes expanding access to substitution programs and safer supply–which, while currently technically available to youth under 19, remains practically inaccessible because of systemic barriers to care and physician reluctance to prescribe to minors.

And then there is the ongoing threat posed by Bill 22 (not to be confused with Bill C-22, one of the many federal drug-related bills floating around), the Province’s proposed amendment to the BC Mental Health Act that would allow youth who overdose to be involuntarily hospitalized. CSSDP wrote about why this was such a remarkably bad bill last summer, including how it will further deter youth from seeking care during an overdose. While Bill 22 was previously paused due to lack of support in Parliament, the NDP now has the majority government it needs to easily pass such a bill. Passing this bill will only push us further down the road of ineffective coercion and punishment of youth who use drugs, while doing nothing to address the underlying drivers of overdose

We are, however, cautiously encouraged by the announcement of a new position within the BC government: the Special Advisor on Youth to the Premier, who will be responsible for engaging with young people and aligning BC’s efforts with youth’s needs. MLA Brittny Anderson was appointed to this position. Given that Anderson is a co-founder of The Cannabis Conservancy, a group that focuses on sustainability and social responsibility in the cannabis industry, we are hopeful that she will be supportive of an equitable and evidence-based approach to substance use among youth, rather than one rooted in punishment and coercion. 

Vancouver: doing decrim first and getting Cops out of Schools

Vancouver has also seen several interesting developments lately that have implications for youth, most notably around decriminalization and School Officer Liaison programs. 

In November 2020, Vancouver City Council voted unanimously to seek an exemption to the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act which would decriminalize simple possession of drugs and are now weeks away from its final application submission to Health Canada. Details around the “Vancouver Model” and how it came to be have only recently become available to the public revealing how community perspectives were not incorporated into the consultation at an early stage. As a result, the proposed threshold limits (“a 3 day supply”) do not reflect community needs and priorities. Drug user (VANDU, DULF) and legal advocacy groups (PIVOT) made their own recommendations regarding practical drug decriminalization and a different approach to threshold amounts, advocating for a more fulsome version of decrim. We’ve been advocating for drug decriminalization for a long time (even better, legalization!) but there are two big problems with the “Vancouver Model” relevant to a youth perspective. 

First, the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) are co-authors of this whole application, an application which gives them discretionary power and still allows them to decide where people who use drugs go, even if it’s not jail. Second, this model explicitly excludes “young offenders,” and states that VPD will be involved in supporting youth and “offering diversion pathways” (is this code for involuntary treatment?). There is no better way to signal that youth will continue to be criminalized for drug use than to refer to them as “offenders.”

A campaign to get Cops Out of Schools has been ongoing within the Lower Mainland area, and recently reached a head in Vancouver. Within the last few weeks, the Vancouver School Board voted to end the School Liaison Officer program, which stationed police officers in elementary and secondary schools for… reasons. This program disproportionately harmed Black and Indigenous youth over its 50 years, and for many youth was their first instance of being criminalized or targeted for using drugs. However, just like the Vancouver Model, the motion to end the SLO program goes to great pains to keep police involved in schools and pay them proper tribute (literally, one of the motion’s items is to send a thank you letter to the VPD). And just like the Vancouver Model, it offers seemingly little benefit to youth who use drugs, leaving the door open for continued criminalization.

Nothing about us without us: Youth representation now

Shifting policy in British Columbia matters, at the local level, nationally, and internationally. Other provinces and countries are looking our way for examples of how to approach drug policy reform (looking at you, Montreal!). The stakes are high for youth who, globally, continue to be disproportionately impacted by bad drug policy, and aren’t ever asked how to make them better.

By failing to consider the needs and voices of youth in drug policy, and ultimately failing to acknowledge that youth use drugs, we risk perpetuating or making punitive policies worse. While the appointment of a Special Advisor on Youth is a good step, we need broader and diverse representation of youth perspectives in co-leading drug policy reform. We need statements and action from the City of Vancouver and the Province committing to prioritizing the voices of young people who just want to live their lives, over the cops who treat them like criminals. And we need meaningful and equitable inclusion of youth when it comes to the policies that are going to affect us.