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A failed global war on drugs has had a devastating effect on our communities. The criminalization of drug use has led to tragic rates of disease and overdoses, and has needlessly cost countless lives across Canada. It is an approach that creates and perpetuates inequality, discrimination, and stigma. Pivot works with people who use drugs to create legal and policy change that will meet their most pressing needs, including timely access to a range of health services, harm reduction programs, and addiction treatment options in their own communities. We are working to build a evidence-based approach to drug policy that promotes health and human rights.
Nov 19, 2020
Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users & Pivot Legal Society Joint Statementread this article
Act Now! Decriminalizing Drugs in Vancouver
Abolishing the mandatory victim fine surcharge
In April 2018, our team of lawyers, along with counsel from Rosenberg Law, intervened at the Supreme Court of Canada in a case involving the mandatory victim fine surcharge: a post-sentencing fine of at least $100 dollars imposed on every person who commits an offence, regardless of severity. For people below the poverty line who are oftentimes convicted of minor, victimless crimes, this charge can be devastating. It can, for instance, amount to a third of one’s social assistance payments and make it nearly impossible to pay rent and put food on the table.
With no discretion to waive the surcharge, BC judges were routinely imposing jail time in lieu of payment, knowing that people simply could not pay. We argued successfully that the effects of the surcharge amount to cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore the mandatory surcharge must be struck down. The Supreme Court agreed, citing our submissions numerous times in its written decision. This change in law marks a major victory for people across Canada affected by the intersecting harms of poverty, homelessness, and substance use.
Access to heroin-assisted treatment
People who are struggling with addiction should have access to all proven, evidence-based forms of addiction treatment. For individuals experiencing chronic and serious opiate addictions, this includes heroin-assisted treatment (HAT), which has been proven to improve health outcomes in ways that other traditional addiction treatments have not. In 2013, the federal government put in place a regulation prohibiting access to this life-saving medicine. In response, Pivot initiated litigation on behalf of five patients who took part in the Study to Assess Longer-term Opioid Medication Effectiveness (SALOME), which tested alternative treatments for people with chronic heroin addiction, including HAT, who are not benefiting sufficiently from available treatments such as oral methadone. We argued that government regulations preventing the ongoing delivery of life-saving treatment to these vulnerable addictions patients was a violation of their Charter rights. Pivot won a court injunction protecting our clients’ access (and that of the 202 other research participants) to HAT while waiting for the case to go to trial. In September 2016, rather than defend their unconstitutional regulation in court, the federal government repealed the offending regulation. This was a major victory for our clients, who achieved the change they sought with their lawsuit.
Defending local access to harm reduction
A number of BC municipalities have bylaws in place to restrict access to methadone and harm reduction supplies and to make it difficult to operate services for people who use drugs. The most sweeping anti-harm reduction bylaw in BC was introduced by the City of Abbotsford in 2005. In May 2013, Pivot filed a lawsuit and human rights complaint challenging the bylaw, which prohibited all harm reduction uses anywhere in the municipality. In early 2014, the City of Abbotsford voted to amend the bylaw before the case went to court, a huge victory for people who use drugs in the City of Abbotsford and for human rights in this province.
Mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes
In 2013, Pivot released Throwing Away the Keys, a comprehensive report looking at the harms and social costs of mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes. Since then, Pivot has intervened in several successful challenges to mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. Our goal in those interventions was to ensure that the perspectives and experiences of people who come before of the courts as a result of their addiction, Indigenous people, and vulnerable women were considered when assessing the impact of specific sentencing provisions. In April 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada and the BC Court of Appeal delivered decisions in two of those cases, overturning specific minimum sentencing provisions for certain drug offences. Later that year, Canada’s federal justice minister announced that her government intends to cut widespread use of mandatory minimum sentences and give judges back their discretion.