Five takeaways from Vancouver police drug data

Drug seizure data obtained by Postmedia via a freedom of information request gives insight into how police track illicit substances.

Vancouver police seized over 138,000 grams of illicit substances over the course of 2018, down from more than 204,149 grams the previous year, according to data obtained via a freedom of information request.

Here are five key takeaways from what the data does and doesn’t tell us:

1) Despite legalization, cannabis is still the most-seized substance

Seizure of cannabis and related products (like CBD oil) dipped from nearly 100,000 grams in 2017 to just over 60,000 in 2018 — but it’s still by far the most common drug seized by police.

While the Cannabis Act legalized the use of cannabis for adults in specific spaces, it also prohibits “illicit cannabis” grown or distributed outside government-sanctioned spaces.

Data from Statistics Canada indicates 47 per cent of cannabis users, or 2.5 million Canadians, obtained the drug from legal sources in the first quarter of 2019, compared to a mere 23 per cent in the first period of 2018 before it was widely legalized.

Thirty-eight per cent of users still obtained it from an illegal source.

2) Few people are arrested solely for possessing drugs

Virtually no one was charged with just simple possession when drugs are seized, according to a freedom of information request released by Vancouver police.

The department only charged 21 people with simple possession in 2018 even though more than 5,000 seizures took place.

In other cases, suspects may have been charged with possession in combination with other offences such as trafficking.

Police may also seize illicit substances without recommending charges.

Two types of fentanyl at a Vancouver safe injection site. NICK PROCAYLO / PNG

3) A huge number of drugs are never identified

Behind cannabis, fentanyl, methamphetamine and cocaine, the most common category of illicit substance is “unknown.”

Over 8,000 grams of substances seized in 2018 went unidentified, likely because the officer filing the report was unable to confirm what it was.

According to Health Canada, drugs only undergo testing when necessary for a legal case.

“Drugs seized only for destruction many not be analyzed and the substance form would be presumptive in those instances,” reads the letter of response from Vancouver police.

4) Classifications are inconsistent

The way police describe drugs is highly erratic, leaving potential for data to be tainted or misleading.

For example, police submitting reports to VPD frequently misspelled words like “cocaine.”

“Cannabis” and “marijuana” are also listed as separate substances, with nearly 10 incorrect or derivative spellings of the latter included in the past three years of data.

5) Results don’t tell us what drugs are on the street

Police data offers a window into the illicit drug market — but it carries several caveats.

When drugs are cut or mixed, an officer may not be able to immediately identify them or may label them as one substance, but not the other.

Police also may misidentify substances or seize substances that are not illegal. Police data from 2017-2019 includes seizures of Vitamin A, Vitamin C and — most perplexingly — one count of “iced tea.”