Saskatchewan mom Willi McCorriston says she’s not surprised the province isn’t moving to decriminalize drug possession, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing.
She said the current system failed her daughter, who is recovering from an opioid addiction. The young woman was sentenced to 30 months in prison for possession for the purpose of trafficking, McCorriston said.
“What my daughter needed was care, not punishment,” she said.
“It just doesn’t make sense that we’re willing to invest so much in punishment and so little in treatment.”
Her daughter, now in her late 20s, got out of the Edmonton Institution for Women (EIW) in 2019.
“I don’t want any family to have to go through what my family has gone through,” McCorriston said.
Decriminalizing simple drug possession would help with that, she said.
Last week, B.C. announced its plan to apply for an exemption from part of Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, in an effort to destigmatize drug use. The exemption would not legalize illicit drugs, but would bar police from charging people who possess drugs for personal use.
Despite following the deadly overdose trend first observed in B.C., Saskatchewan has no plans to pursue decriminalization.
“While Saskatchewan is not requesting a legislative exemption at this time, the province continues to work on a number of initiatives to address issues related to illicit drugs,” Saskatchewan justice ministry spokesperson Margherita Vittorelli said in an email.
That’s a shame, McCorriston said, as there’s no sense in filling jail cells with people who use drugs for recreation or self-medication.
“There’s absolutely no question that it’s costing us a lot of money to put people into prisons, where they get out and they’re sicker than they were when they went in,” she said, noting addiction services for her daughter at the EIW were limited.
Police on board
Last July, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police called for decriminalization across the country. The association said arresting people “has proven to be ineffective” and “does not save lives.”
Regina Police Service (RPS) Chief Evan Bray said decriminalization must be paired with robust harm reduction services, since many people caught with drugs suffer from addiction.
“It’s an urgent need,” Bray said in an interview on Thursday.
“There’s some great work going on out there, but it’s scraping the surface in terms of what the actual need is in our province.”
The RPS drug enforcement officers focus mostly on trafficking, Bray said. They can help prevent drugs from entering a community, he said, but health supports are required to decrease demand.
When Regina police encounter people with illicit drugs in their possession, they try to connect them to support services, he said.
“That connection, when it’s not immediate, oftentimes is not as likely to be successful,” he said, flagging long wait times for addictions programming.
McCorriston said conversations about decriminalization must address police discretion over how drugs are determined to be for “personal use,” along with the potential for police to lay harsher charges in lieu of simple possession.
Criminalizing drug use contributes to stigma and high-risk behaviour, said Vidya Reddy, education coordinator for AIDS Programs South Saskatchewan.
Reddy said he hopes Canada eventually legalizes drugs and establishes a safe supply.
“Forcing them to go and get… contaminated, dangerous supplies, is going to result in nothing but death, hospitalizations and huge costs to our system, which is what is happening,” he said.
Decriminalization could bring people out of isolation and make them feel safe to access harm reduction services, he said. It could also help reverse the province’s skyrocketing overdose deaths, projected at more than one a day, according to Saskatchewan’s coroner’s service.
“Nobody has to die,” he said.