Sunday Province [Vancouver, British Columbia], June 18, 1995, p. A5

Users Off The Hook

[front page teaser:]

Just Say Whoa - Feds Tell City Cops: Stop Charging People For Drug Possession"

by Greg Middleton

Simple drug possession in Vancouver will no longer be prosecuted under new federal government guidelines, the Province has learned. Senior federal drug prosecutor Lindsay Smith wrote to Vancouver police on May 17 advising them of the relaxed stance. The letter said the Crown would only approve possession charges if there was an aggravating factor, such as if the person was "a known gang member."

"We were simply indicating the system is badly overtaxed and we have more drug cases than we can deal with," explained Tony Dohm, of the Justice Department. Dohm is in charge of federal prosecutions in B.C. All drug charges are handled by federally appointed prosecutors. He said the edict applies to Vancouver, where drug prosecutions have overloaded the courts. "We have to look at the effect on the community," he said. "It may be different if someone is caught outside a school in West Vancouver or North Vancouver with drugs." Drugs, from marijuana to cocaine and heroin, are part of the downtown area, he said.

Dohm defended the new position. "We're not giving people carte blanche. It's not a license to do drugs and we're not telling police to turn a blind eye." While no one knows how many illicit drug users there are in Vancouver, one downtown needle exchange will give away at least 1.5 million needles this year.

Two provincial courtrooms run almost full-time in downtown Vancouver exclusively for drug cases. And there can be several dozen new drug-posession cases a day. Vancouver police deputy chief Rich Rollins agrees with Dohm. "We have to be practical; that is the bottom line," Rollins said. He confirmed the letter had come after a number of meetings with federal justice department officials and drug prosecutors.

Members of the drug squad had complained about the number of recent drug cases being dropped or refused by federal prosecutors. "It was discussed at an exeutive meeting of the police department," Rollins said.

Mayor Philip Owen, chairman of the Vancouver police board, could not be reached for comment last night. But Prof. Neil Boyd, head of Simon Fraser University's criminology department, said giving up on drug-possession charges is "probably the right way to go." He advocated decriminalizing drug possession, saying drug use should not be a criminal offence.

"It doesn't make sense to criminalize the chemical alteration of consciousness with some drugs when we allow people to do it with tobacco and alcohol," Boyd said.



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