Study: Downtown Eastside policing strategies create barriers to accessing overdose prevention sites

published on September 18, 2019

Policing practices in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) are increasing overdose risks among people who use drugs and creating barriers to accessing overdose prevention sites (OPS), according to a new study from researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and BC Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU).

“Policing tactics that target people who use drugs and focus on areas where drug use and sales are common prevent barriers to life-saving overdose prevention sites among people who need access to these services,” says Dr. Ryan McNeil, research scientist at BCCSU and assistant professor at UBC. “There is an urgent need to move away from policing strategies that target areas with high drug use and adopt a policy decriminalizing drug use and possession because the risk of arrest and charges experienced by people who use drugs undermines the overdose response.”

Since Vancouver adopted the four pillars approach to drug policy in 2005 and de-prioritized enforcement of drug-related crimes, annual drug charges made by the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) have dropped to from 5,183 drug charges in 2006 to 1,629 in 2017, based on the most recent VPD annual report.

However, the research published today in the International Journal of Drug Policy details the impact of police presence in the DTES and the enforcement of area restrictions (court-ordered restrictions on returning to an area where an individual was previously arrested, referred to as “red zoning”) – alongside other policing strategies aimed at addressing street disorder in response to increasing gentrification in the neighbourhood.

Researchers conducted over 200 hours of ethnographic fieldwork in and around overdose prevention sites in the DTES, and qualitative interviews with 72 people who use drugs. They found that the VPD’s patrol and surveillance activities prevented people who use drugs from accessing life-saving services.

Participants in the study reported:

  • Negative encounters with police that included being harassed while using drugs outside, displacement while sleeping outside, and having tents and belongings disposed of by police and city staff
  • Being stopped and searched by police
  • Being displaced from areas where overdose-related interventions operate
  • Hesitating to involve emergency medical responders in overdose first aid for fear of police attendance
  • Injecting or using alone to avoid police
  • Decreased access to overdose prevention sites and other harm reduction services
  • Increased engagement in overdose-related risk behaviors, such as rushed injecting

“Current policing tactics can increase harm for people who use drugs and increase violence they experience, undermining the effectiveness of evidence-based, public heath interventions,” says Adrienne Smith, a drug policy lawyer in Vancouver.

Based on the findings, the study authors are recommending changes to the City’s urban police response, including reducing car and foot patrols in the DTES, avoiding policing around overdose prevention sites and adjacent areas at all times, and ceasing enforcement of “red zone” restrictions.

B.C.’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, released a report earlier this year calling for de facto decriminalization for people who use drugs in B.C. Study authors argue that in Vancouver, that should include ceasing to enforce the petty possession and low-level trafficking of controlled substances in the DTES.

Media contact:

Kevin Hollett
Communications, BC Centre on Substance Use
[email protected]