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Rights + Justice

Police Chiefs Urge Decriminalization of Drug Use

As overdose toll climbs, police group calls for health, social supports for users.

Moira Wyton 9 Jul 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Moira Wyton is The Tyee’s health reporter. Follow her @moirawyton or reach her here. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Police chiefs across Canada are calling for the decriminalization of drug possession for personal use, a move long supported by public health experts to reduce overdose deaths.

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police also called for a national task force on drug policy reform to examine how Canada’s drug laws increase fatal overdose risks for users.

“Being addicted to a controlled substance is not a crime, and it should not be treated as such,” said Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer this morning, president of the association.

“We recommend Canada’s enforcement-based approach for possession be replaced with a health-care approach that diverts people from the criminal justice system.”

The association, which represents about 1,300 police leaders from provincial, municipal, First Nations and regional police services, joins B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and others in calling for an end to criminal sanctions against people who use drugs. It established a committee to study the proposal in 2018.

Henry recently renewed her call to decriminalize drug possession in the wake of B.C.’s deadliest month for overdoses in May.

That month 170 people died due to an increasingly poisoned drug supply, a crisis made worse by pandemic-related supply chain disruptions. Overdose deaths among First Nations people in B.C. between January and May increased 93 per cent over last year, with 89 deaths.

Palmer noted that substance use and addictions are issues that have been downloaded to police. They need to be addressed based on an integrated health and social support approach, he said.

Responses to simple possession after decriminalization could include tickets, warnings or connection to safe supply programs, which the province has been working to expand since March.

Palmer also wants to see more support for people who use drugs from all levels of government so that police can focus on drug trafficking enforcement.

“Addiction issues should best be handled through a health-care system, not a criminal justice system,” Palmer said.

Premier John Horgan said today he fully supports the proposal. “We can’t have law enforcement doing work that is better done by health officials.”

This week Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth launched an all-party committee to review the Police Act in B.C., the first major review in 46 years.

Horgan suggested the committee could look at decriminalization as part of its review at a news conference today. But its mandate does not include examining how police can work towards the decriminalization of people who use drugs.

A spokesperson for Farnworth sent a statement in response to Tyee questions which appeared to shift responsibility to the federal government, although Henry had outlined ways the province could effectively decriminalize drug possession. "As the premier stated, there are a whole range of issues surrounding the Police Act that will be looked at by the all-party committee, including the role of police with respect to addictions and harm reduction," it said. "We would support the federal government decriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. Our government has long been clear that addiction is a public health issue and should be treated as one."*

Henry had called for decriminalization in April 2019, but the B.C. government rejected the recommendation.

Decriminalization is part of a spectrum of actions that can be taken, Palmer said, and is already effectively the case in Vancouver, where simple possession charges are rarely laid. Expanding safe supply of substances would be another solution to directly address the increasingly toxic opioid supply in B.C. and across Canada.

“Illegal drugs, organized crime and addictions to controlled substances will always exist. Given this fact, we must adopt new and innovative approaches in an attempt to address drug overdoses in our communities across Canada,” said Palmer.

*Updated on July 10 at 1:29 p.m. to include a response from Farnworth's spokesperson.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Rights + Justice

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