Canada’s law enforcement supports viewing drug possession as a public health issue.
Amid the crippling opioid epidemic and COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian police are now publicly calling for the decriminalization of the personal possession of illicit drugs and for all police agencies in the country to recognize substance abuse and addiction as a public health issue, rather than criminalizing it. The purpose would be to create a shift from pushing drug users underground to allowing them to safely seek treatment.
In a new statement, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) proposed “diverting people dealing with substance abuse or addiction issues away from the criminal system and toward social services and health care.” The effort came about after the Special Purpose Committee report titled Decriminalization for Simple Possession of Illicit Drugs: Exploring Impacts on Public Safety & Policing.
“Canada continues to grapple with the fentanyl crisis and a poisoned drug supply that has devastated our communities and taken thousands of lives,” said Chief Const. Adam Palmer, president of the CACP. “We recommend that enforcement for possession give way to an integrated health-focused approach that requires partnerships between police, health care and all levels of government.”
The report endorsed access to users of a safe supply of pharmaceutical-grade opioids and recommended the institution of supervised sites where addicts can use in a clean, safe environment, under the supervision of health professionals. Officers would continue to target traffickers, producers, and drug importers.
Melissa Steinhauer, who is a secretary at the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society, as well as a heroin and cocaine addict, said, “Decriminalizing personal possession of illicit drugs would be a step in the right direction. Police, though, need to recognize the damage they do when officers seize drugs from dealers as well.”
When her regular dealer’s stash is depleted by law enforcement, Steinhauer is forced to buy drugs from someone she doesn’t know, risking contamination. Many street drugs are laced with deadly doses of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid.
“Then I don’t know what’s in it,” she said. “Sometimes when you’re really sick, you don’t think ‘Oh, I’m going to get it tested.’ You just want to feel better. You want to get your medicine and feel better.”
There have been 15,393 apparent opioid-related deaths in Canada between January 2016 and December 2019, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Canadian police Chief Brian Larkin, who co-chairs the CACP’s Special Purpose Committee, said, “When you look at policing, we’re responsible for advancing public safety in Canada. And we have a consensus amongst police leaders, including federally, that it’s time to have a dialogue. What’s been happening in the past clearly is not working for us.”
In preparing the report, the committee studied the approaches of countries such as Portugal, Sweden and Norway, where drug possession is still illegal, but criminal sanction has already been documented as an unviable solution. However, some experts remain critical of the move.
“The way that CAPC has framed it, suggests they may be in favor of implementing some kind of administrative regime. So, if somebody is found to be in possession, they won’t get criminal charges, but they may get a fine, or they may be forced into treatment,” said Caitlin Shane, a staff attorney at Pivot Legal Society. “When people fear arrest, or detention, or any kind of penalty, they’re going to be forced into more precarious scenarios, when using drugs.”