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N.S. harm reduction advocates applaud police chiefs for stance on drug decriminalization

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WATCH: For the first time in their history, Canada’s police chiefs have endorsed the decriminalization of simple possession of illicit drugs. As Elizabeth McSheffrey reports, they’re calling for the creation of a national task force to research drug policy reform – a move Nova Scotia harm reduction advocates hail as progressive and supportive of public health.

Nova Scotia harm reduction advocates are applauding Canada’s police chiefs for taking a bold new stance in favour of decriminalizing simple possession of illicit drugs.

Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer, president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP), made the announcement Thursday after the group’s new report found that arresting individuals for simple possession is “ineffective” and “does not save lives.”

The move is being welcomed as a progressive shift in thinking that prioritizes mental health over enforcement.

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

“I think it can only serve to support folks, champion health and wellness initiatives and keep everyone safe,” said Halifax harm reduction worker Patrick Maubert.

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“… to keep people out of jail and instead, keep people connected to supports both from community organization as well as friends and family who can actually give that love and support and care that folks need to thrive as human beings.”

The police chiefs say the new approach could encourage alternative health care “diversions” — through partnerships with mental health organizations and social workers, for example — rather than the use of criminal sanctions.

They’re also calling for the creation of a national task force to research drug policy reform in Canada.

To decriminalize drugs would require a federal legislative change to the Criminal Code of Canada.

Click to play video 'How harm reduction measures have adapted to the pandemic' How harm reduction measures have adapted to the pandemic
How harm reduction measures have adapted to the pandemic

Dr. Tommy Brothers, a resident physician and harm reduction advocate, said the national task force should be operate with a social justice and equity lens in mind and take a good look at other countries that have decriminalized successfully, such as Portugal and Norway.

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“Decriminalization in Canada could have a lot of different models and look like a lot of different things,” he explained.

“Criminalization of drug use in Canada has disproportionately harmed Black and Indigenous Canadians, so however we’re going to do this … it’s important to think about not overly burdening people who are already being harmed by the current policies.”

Read more: How harm reduction measures are changing under the COVID-19 pandemic

The CACP says enforcement and judicial efforts must continue to target trafficking and the illegal production and importation of drugs to choke off the supply of harmful substances coming communities.

“I think this shows really great leadership at a national level,” said occupational therapist and Dalhousie University associate professor Niki Kiepek.

“Often times, people experience more negative consequences from how it is treated in the criminal justice system than they’re actually experiencing from the effects of the substance itself.”

Click to play video 'Harm reduction advocates pressure N.S. government to open first overdose prevention site in Atlantic Canada' Harm reduction advocates pressure N.S. government to open first overdose prevention site in Atlantic Canada
Harm reduction advocates pressure N.S. government to open first overdose prevention site in Atlantic Canada

According to Statistics Canada, in 2018 — the most recent year for which data is available — police charged 63 Nova Scotians for possessing cocaine, nine for possession opioids other than heroin, and 10 for possession methamphetamines, like crystal meth.

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Read more: B.C.’s top doctor urges province to decriminalize possession of hard drugs to address overdose crisis

But those numbers don’t capture hundreds of drug possession incidents police responded to, or the complex cultural, social and economic circumstances that contribute to addiction.

Stephen Schneider, a criminology professor at Saint Mary’s University, said drug use is a “pandemic in the midst of this pandemic,” and that any new approach to decriminalization of individual possession for personal use should be the “tip of the iceberg” for dealing with social justice and mental health issues.

“What we’re talking about is replacing police with social workers and psychiatric nurses and people who actually address the root cause of the problem,” he told Global News.

“The decriminalization of drugs should take place within a broader rethinking of how we deal with crime in a broader society.”

Schneider said it’s possible decriminalization could result increased overdoses and additions to the addict population.

It won’t be “an easy” process, he added, but he’s hopeful the Liberal government — which decriminalized cannabis — may seize the CACP endorsement as an opportunity to move away from Canada’s “tough on crime” approach to enforcement.

— With files from Global News’ Jon Azpiri

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