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Canada’s police chiefs support decriminalizing drug possession. Is change coming?

WATCH: In a potentially game-changing decision, Canada's police chiefs now say simple possession of illicit drugs should be decriminalized.

Now that Canada’s police chiefs have voiced support for the decriminalization of personal illicit drug possession, experts are hopeful the endorsement will spur Ottawa to act on a long-sought-after policy move.

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The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police is proposing increased access to health care, treatment and social services to divert people away from the criminal justice system. While possession of large quantities of drugs would still be a criminal offence, the chiefs say simple possession arrests have proven “ineffective” and “do not save lives.”

Read more: Canadian police chiefs call for decriminalization of simple illicit drug possession

Scott Bernstein, director of policy at the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition (CDPC), says the idea is one for which his group and multiple public health experts across the country have been advocating for years.

“We have examples from jurisdictions all over the world that have decriminalized (possession) without the sky falling in,” he said, citing Portugal and other nations that have made the change.

“So far, we’ve largely faced resistance from federal and provincial governments to take action. So I think we’re certainly hopeful that maybe this is an opportunity to have another look at it.”

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While the push to decriminalize personal possession has been going on nearly as long as Canada’s years-long opioid crisis, it has only increased in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

In British Columbia, one of the epicentres of the crisis, 170 overdose deaths were recorded in May alone. It marked the province’s highest-ever total since the crisis was declared a public health emergency in 2016 and erased months of steadily declining death rates.

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In response to that news, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry repeated her own calls to decriminalize simple possession, which she first outlined in a report last year, saying the pandemic has only exacerbated the opioid emergency. While the report was endorsed by the provincial government, the matter is ultimately under federal jurisdiction.

Read more: B.C.’s top doctor urges compassion in emotional response to record-breaking overdose deaths

Bernstein points to an open letter the CDPC and other groups sent in May to Health Minister Patty Hajdu, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair and Attorney General David Lametti, which called for a regulation by the federal cabinet to exempt people under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act from facing criminal penalties for personal possession.

“We made the case that this (the coronavirus pandemic) is a situation where an exemption is warranted and the government should act,” he said. “It doesn’t require amendments to laws, it doesn’t require a long, drawn-out process.

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“You know, anything that can reduce the stigma of drug use can save lives, and especially right now, as a response to this pandemic, I think we really need to look at.”

Bernstein says decriminalizing possession would also help police and governments in their efforts to reform and address systemic racism in the criminal justice system, which has gained momentum amid anti-racism protests around the world.

“Our drug policies in Canada were formed over 100 years ago on racist ideas about controlling Chinese and Japanese people and ultimately controlling Indigenous people, and I think that persists today now with Black, Indigenous and people of colour,” he said.

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“Ultimately, what the defund the police movement is calling for is very much what we’ve been calling for for years: reducing policing, and in the case of drugs, treating that as a health issue and not a criminal issue.”

Read more: Trudeau unconvinced decriminalizing hard drugs is a cure-all for opioid crisis

In a joint statement sent in response to the police chiefs’ report, Hajdu and Lametti also acknowledged the impact COVID-19 has had on the opioid crisis while maintaining their commitment to a “compassionate approach to address it.”

Yet while the ministers said substance abuse is, indeed, a health issue, they did not say whether they would consider decriminalization specifically.

“Our government remains committed to advancing evidence-based responses to help reverse the trend of opioid overdose deaths and other substance-related harms in Canada,” the statement reads.

Will government act?

Public polling shows a mixed response to the idea of decriminalization. An Ipsos poll from February found 47 per cent of Canadians surveyed support the move, while 53 oppose it. B.C. was the most supportive province at 51 per cent, while Alberta and the Atlantic provinces had 43 per cent support.

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Other public health officials in B.C. have endorsed Henry’s report with their own. Premier John Horgan, who has called on the federal government to act on Henry’s advice, voiced support for the police chiefs’ report on Thursday, saying: “If not now, when?”

Read more: Trudeau confirms that the Liberals are not looking to decriminalize drugs

Yet the idea has been a political hot potato on the national stage. While the NDP and Greens supported decriminalization during October’s federal election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refused to commit to it, and the Conservatives flat-out rejected the proposal. Leader Andrew Scheer instead called for a law-and-order approach to the drug crisis along with more resources for addiction treatment.

The 2018 Liberal convention saw members vote in favour of a resolution to “reclassify low-level drug possession and consumption as administrative violations” rather than criminal ones. That prompted the Conservatives to claim during the election that decriminalization would become Liberal policy, which Trudeau repeatedly denied.

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Trudeau made clear after the election that he’s unconvinced decriminalization would solve Canada’s opioid crisis, echoing his ministers by wanting to prioritize other options. Yet he also admitted he once felt the same way about legalizing cannabis before changing his mind.

Bernstein says his group and others will continue having conversations with politicians and that he is “cautiously optimistic” this latest recommendation could help make the idea a reality.

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“Countries like Portugal, they didn’t make the choice in a reactionary way. They were very pragmatic,” he said. “Canada is also very pragmatic about finding solutions, and I’m hopeful that the evidence and the recommendations will point them in the right direction.”

— With files from the Canadian Press

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