UBC Faculty Research and Publications

Police seizure of drugs without arrest among people who use drugs in Vancouver, Canada, before provincial ‘decriminalization’ of simple possession : a cohort study Hayashi, Kanna; Singh Kelsall, Tyson; Shane, Caitlin; Cui, Zishan; Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users; Milloy, M-J; DeBeck, Kora; Kerr, Thomas


Background: Several jurisdictions in Canada have recently considered decriminalizing possession of illicit drugs for personal use (henceforth, simple possession) as part of their responses to the ongoing drug toxicity/overdose crisis. In this context, we sought to examine an early implementation case of a de facto depenalization policy of simple possession offences in Vancouver, Canada, that was enacted in 2006. Specifically, we characterized experiences of people who use drugs (PWUD) whose drugs were discretionally seized by police without arrest. Methods: Data were derived from three prospective cohorts of community-recruited PWUD in Vancouver over 16 months in 2019–2021. We conducted multivariable generalized estimating equations analyses to determine the prevalence of and factors associated with drug seizure. Sub-analyses used data collected in 2009–2012 and examined the trends over time. Results: Among 995 participants who were interviewed in 2019–2021, 63 (6.3%) had their drugs seized by police at least once in the past 6 months. In multivariable analyses, factors significantly associated with drug seizure included: homelessness (adjusted odds ratio [AOR]: 1.98; 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.09–3.61), working in the unregulated drug market (AOR: 4.93; 95% CI 2.87–8.49), and naloxone administration (AOR: 2.15; 95% CI 1.23–3.76). In 2009–2012, 67.8% reported having obtained new drugs immediately after having their drugs seized by police. Odds of drug seizure were not significantly different between the two time periods (2019–2021 vs. 2009–2012) (AOR: 0.93; 95% CI: 0.64–1.35). Conclusions: Despite the depenalization policy, the Vancouver Police Department has continued to seize illicit drugs from PWUD, even in cases where no arrest occurred. This policing practice may create health and safety risks for PWUD as it forces PWUD to increase the engagement with the unregulated illicit drug market. Our findings support calls for abolishing this often-undocumented discretionary policing practice that may exacerbate ongoing health inequities and interfere with peer-based overdose prevention efforts.

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Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)