Here's why police say a Vancouver city councillor wasn't charged for handing out heroin

Earlier this year, a Vancouver city councillor openly handed out hard drugs, but she was never charged by police.

Jean Swanson, a long-time advocate for safe drug supply in a province seeing more than a thousand deaths per year due to toxic substances, posted on Twitter in July, "I got to hand out safe drugs today," with a photo of a package labelled "heroin."

Her actions were part of an event she attended by non-profit Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and Drug User Liberation Front (DULF).

Photos from the event showed other drugs – methamphetamine and cocaine – were also part of the safe supply being handed out at this and other similar events held in the city.

"Six deaths a day from poison drugs is way too many. One is too many. Safe supply now!" Swanson wrote at the time.

Top officials in B.C., including provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe, have advocated for safe supply to aid the province's efforts to fight the public health crisis.

That, along with increased access to treatment and other support, are said to be crucial in the effort to save lives.

While the City of Vancouver has sought federal approval to decriminalize hard drugs locally, advocates argue creating a safe supply is paramount, especially during the pandemic, which has seen, through border closures, increased toxicity in drugs available on the street.

The latest data suggests 2021 will be a record-breaking year for illicit drug overdoses in the province.

So Swanson took part in a protest in the city's Downtown Eastside that involved the distribution of some of these drugs, meant not for profit but as a harm reduction measure.

Police took no action to stop the distribution, though officers were on scene.

Swanson's involvement in the mid-July protest was brought up this week, as one of the items on the agenda of a Vancouver Police Board meeting.

A member of the public submitted a complaint about the event involving Swanson, whose name was redacted in documents provided to the board, to the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (OPCC).

This unidentified person wrote that they had contacted officers about the event and said they were advised that "the police knew about what was going on but didn't feel the need to arrest her."

The board was ordered by Deputy Police Complaint Commissioner Andrea Spindler to notify all parties of the course of action being taken, then send an explanation back to the OPCC.

A report dated Sept. 28, but presented to the Vancouver Police Board Service and Policy Complaint Review Committee on Oct. 21, came with the recommendation that the review be concluded.

"The (Vancouver Police Department) has consistently acknowledged that addiction is primarily a health issue, not a criminal justice issue. Accordingly, the VPD has been supportive of a Four Pillars approach, which focuses on Prevention, Harm Reduction, Treatment and Enforcement," Sgt. Alvin Shum wrote, noting the department's primary focus is what does the most harm – drug dealers and manufacturers.

"The VPD does not generally arrest or charge for simple possession unless a substantive offence has also occurred or other circumstances warrant it."

Shum went on to say the department supports local harm reduction services including supervised injection sites, and that police don't condone drug trafficking, but recognized the intent of Swanson's actions was not motivated by profit or connected to organized crime.

The sergeant wrote that it's possible arrests could be made at other events – for example, if samples handed out contained a lethal amount of fentanyl – but that in this case, it was not considered necessary. 

In a message posted on Twitter earlier this week, Swanson wrote of the decision, "Looks like I'm not gonna b arrested," and included a smiling emoji.

I got to hand out safe drugs today with VANDU And DULF. 6 deaths a day from poison drugs is way too many. 1 is too many. Safe supply now !!

— Jean Swanson (@JeanSwanson_) July 14, 2021