Decrim: How We Decriminalized Drugs in British Columbia
Review By Carey Doberstein
November 7, 2023
On January 23, 2023, BC became the first province to decriminalize small amounts of certain illicit drugs after receiving an exemption from the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Yet this outcome found its origins in an effort led by Vancouver’s Mayor Kennedy Stewart—one initially staunchly opposed by the BC NDP government and the federal Liberal government, until they flipped at the last minute seemingly to avoid progressive embarrassment. This roller coaster of a policy reform effort is documented by Kennedy Stewart— now back as Professor at SFU’s School of Public Policy—in a new book, Decrim: How We Decriminalized Drugs in BC (Harbour Press), which will be of keen interest to policy reformers, academics, and progressive politicians.
This is neither an academic book steeped in theory and systematic empirical analysis, nor a journalistic endeavour to uncover key facts from diverse sources on the ground. Instead, it is part a political history of drug policy in Vancouver and part a personal political memoir—with many dishy anecdotes from the back rooms of high politics in the country—and in this way is a stark reality check for anyone interested in the challenges of delivering policy change.
As a student of Canadian politics, Professor Stewart was in many ways an ideal person to navigate the tricky intergovernmental waters to pursue this innovative initiative that other major cities are now seeking to replicate. This book documents his (and others’) efforts behind the scenes, as well as in the public realm, to show how complex, intergovernmental negotiations and cooperation occurs in Canada from a first-hand account.
A key lesson I take from Stewart’s book is that personnel in political leadership positions matters a great deal. Leadership and risk-taking is the story of drug policy reform in Vancouver, from Mayors Phillip Owen to Larry Campbell and now to Kennedy Stewart. Larry Campbell was an unconventional politician who got the first safe-injection site over the finish line, and Kennedy Stewart took risks that a life-long politician might not have. Similarly, Patty Hajdu features prominently as federal Health Minister who by happenstance had studied drug policy reform in her master’s research and made special efforts behind-the-scenes for Vancouver (and BC) to obtain a special carve out from federal law. In this way, electing a broadly progressive party is not enough to achieve progressive reform initiatives. The status quo is deeply constraining—electoral risk awaits most efforts to break from it. Successful reforms require sustained coalition-building and, ultimately, risk-taking by leaders once in government.
Notwithstanding this important fact, the least successful part of the book is Chapter 10, devoted to portraying Kim Sim, his successor in the Mayor’s chair, as the figurehead for a movement of NIMBYs, gentrifiers, and “haters” (a mostly unrelated grouping of people by Stewart that includes antivaxxers, wealthy pro-business interests, and the Vancouver Police Union) that worked to defeat him electorally as punishment for his decriminalization efforts. This is a reminder that this book is both a political history of drug policy and a memoir for Stewart to get his story out about the forces contributing to his electoral defeat. My sense is that the various groups that mobilized against a progressive Mayor in Vancouver would have done so vigorously with or without drug decriminalization. Whether or not Kennedy Stewart was a martyr for decriminalization is ultimately beside the point—an important, though incremental, policy change has been set into motion in this country.
Some may read this book as an inspiring tale of how dedicated public officials can take advantage of key moments and opportunities to enact meaningful policy change, whereas others may feel the dispiriting weight of the status quo—Stewart himself admits that the decriminalization he secured is a “relatively inconsequential policy change” not likely to save many lives who encounter the toxic drug supply. But if Phillip Owen and Larry Campbell set the overall political strategy with their efforts to promote harm reduction and establish safe-injection sites, respectively, Kennedy Stewart meaningfully pushed the ball up the field a few yards with partial decriminalization in BC. The next generation of progressive leaders now have the playbook to pick up the ball towards more humane and effective drug policy in BC and Canada.
Stewart, Kennedy. Decrim: How We Decriminalized Drugs in British Columbia. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing. 2023. 208 pp. $24.96 paper.