Dan Fumano: NPA councillors question city’s approach on drug issues

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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 press 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 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 which 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.

(That 2016 motion, to close 800 Robson Street to vehicle traffic “to create a permanent public plaza” was passed April 20, 2016, which, coincidentally, happens to be the day of the annual, international “4/20” cannabis celebrations.) 

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 Vision-majority 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 lemonade-stand-type cannabis pop-ups.”

De Genova also questioned if the Vancouver police endorsed the city’s statement Friday, and whether decriminalization of all drug possession could hamper VPD’s drug enforcement 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 soon after the VPD shut down the pot market in January, saying “it’s been a lot better since police went in there.”

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



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