News re­lease on drug pol­icy raises NPA eye­brows

News re­lease that called for study to make per­sonal use le­gal called ‘a sur­prise’

Vancouver Sun - - FRONT PAGE - DAN FU­MANO dfu­mano@post­media.com Twit­ter.com/fu­mano

Things started off on a pretty col­le­gial tone Tues­day morn­ing in Van­cou­ver city coun­cil.

Much of the morn­ing ses­sion was con­cerned with de­vel­op­ment plans for an 8.4-hectare site in south Van­cou­ver. Coun­cil­lors echoed their sup­port for the project, and one com­mented on pro­ceed­ings go­ing “so smoothly.” The mayor agreed, say­ing it was nice to con­duct the meet­ing “with­out the kind of fric­tion that can some­times oc­cur.”

But things soon took a slightly more con­tentious turn, when NPA coun­cil­lors ques­tioned the city’s ap­proach on drug-re­lated mat­ters, rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity the party could make the sub­ject an elec­tion is­sue this year.

NPA Coun. Ge­orge Af­fleck asked coun­cil about Fri­day’s City of Van­cou­ver news re­lease, which, he said, came as “a sur­prise” to him.

Fri­day’s state­ment, an up­date on the city’s tragic, on­go­ing over­dose cri­sis, in­cluded a sin­gle line — seem­ingly buried near the bot­tom of the 450-word state­ment — rec­om­mend­ing con­ven­ing a “task force to im­ple­ment im­me­di­ate de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion of per­sonal pos­ses­sion of il­licit drugs.”

While Af­fleck didn’t ob­ject to the con­cept of drug de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion it­self, he had ques­tions about Fri­day’s state­ment.

“I think, cer­tainly, coun­cil is open to the idea of de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion. But I would say I was very sur­prised to see a press re­lease that was sent out say­ing we were ask­ing, as a city, to im­ple­ment some­thing that has not been dis­cussed in pub­lic in this cham­ber,” he said. “I would like to un­der­stand and hear from per­haps the city man­ager, or Mr. Mayor, your­self, how this could oc­cur, and if this was ap­pro­pri­ate.”

City man­ager Sadhu John­ston replied, say­ing: “Our apolo­gies, if the press re­lease came by sur­prise.”

From city staff ’s per­spec­tive, the rec­om­men­da­tions in the re­lease were part of the “evo­lu­tion” of the city’s long-stand­ing harm re­duc­tion-based drug pol­icy, John­ston said, adding a coun­cil re­port next month would al­low “a ful­some con­ver­sa­tion” with coun­cil on the sub­ject.

Fel­low NPA Coun. Melissa De Gen­ova then raised her own con­cerns about the city’s de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion rec­om­men­da­tion. Less than 10 min­utes ear­lier, De Gen­ova had at­tempted to in­tro­duce a mo­tion seek­ing to re­open the 800 block of Rob­son Street to bus traf­fic, cit­ing the “il­le­gal mar­i­juana vend­ing ” in the area since coun­cil de­cided in 2016 to close it to auto traf­fic and create a per­ma­nent plaza.

De Gen­ova’s mo­tion, sec­onded by fel­low NPA Coun. El­iz­a­beth Ball, in­cluded one line about bus traf­fic, cit­ing a 2016 staff re­port that said the rerout­ing of buses could pro­vide “a less di­rect con­nec­tion” be­tween the West End and Granville Street. But most of the text of the mo­tion con­cerned mar­i­juana sales, which had flour­ished in the area be­fore po­lice en­force­ment in Jan­uary, and “il­le­gal ac­tiv­i­ties that make some peo­ple feel un­com­fort­able and un­wel­come.”

But the mo­tion went nowhere. Mayor Gre­gor Robert­son, chair­ing the meet­ing, said con­cerns had been raised about the mo­tion, adding: “I’m go­ing to ask our city clerk to weigh in on this.”

City clerk Jan­ice MacKen­zie then ex­plained the rel­e­vant rules, in what hap­pened to be her fi­nal coun­cil meet­ing be­fore re­tir­ing af­ter 18 years of ser­vice as deputy city clerk and city clerk. De Gen­ova’s mo­tion ap­peared to be “in con­flict” with the mo­tion passed two years ear­lier by coun­cil, MacKen­zie said.

De Gen­ova, who didn’t vote with the ma­jor­ity in April 2016, was not able to re­scind a mo­tion passed within the cur­rent coun­cil term, MacKen­zie said, adding: “as such, my ad­vice to you, Mr. Chair, is that the mo­tion is out of or­der.”

Robert­son thanked the clerk and ruled the mo­tion out of or­der, say­ing: “it’s pretty black and white.”

De Gen­ova rose and tried to call for “A point of clar­i­fi­ca­tion, Mr. Mayor.”

But Robert­son replied: “There is no such thing as a point of clar­i­fi­ca­tion. You can take it up with the clerk if you have ques­tions.”

Af­ter coun­cil, De Gen­ova told Post­media she be­lieves these two sep­a­rate is­sues are both ex­am­ples of the city’s mis­han­dling of drug is­sues un­der the Vi­sion­ma­jor­ity coun­cil.

“With Vi­sion Van­cou­ver,” she said, “the whole way they’ve han­dled cannabis in our city, in reg­u­lat­ing (dis­pen­saries) through amend­ments to the zon­ing by­laws, has been very prob­lem­atic and has en­cour­aged peo­ple to pop up in places like this. We’ve seen lemon­ade­stand-type cannabis pop-ups.”

De Gen­ova also ques­tioned whether the Van­cou­ver po­lice en­dorsed the city’s state­ment Fri­day, and whether de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion of all drug pos­ses­sion could ham­per VPD’s dru­gen­force­ment ef­forts and “al­low more drug traf­fick­ing to come into Van­cou­ver.”

The VPD did not re­ply Tues­day to a re­quest for com­ment.

Charles Gau­thier, pres­i­dent of the Down­town Van­cou­ver Busi­ness Im­prove­ment As­so­ci­a­tion, said he hasn’t heard from Rob­son Square-area busi­nesses com­plain­ing of mar­i­juana ven­dors since the VPD shut down the pot mar­ket in Jan­uary.

“It’s been a lot bet­ter since po­lice went in there.”

On Tues­day af­ter­noon, there were no signs of mar­i­juana sales or any other un­li­censed ven­dors in the plaza.

NICK PRO­CAYLO

NPA Coun. Melissa De Gen­ova in­tro­duced a mo­tion at city coun­cil on Tues­day to re­open the 800 block of Rob­son Square to bus traf­fic as a way to com­bat the pop-up mar­i­juana mar­ket in that area. The city closed the area to au­to­mo­bile traf­fic in 2016 to create a per­ma­nent plaza.

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