The Saskatchewan government is not considering decriminalizing any illicit drugs at this time, but the conversation is continuing among authorities and advocates in the province as a pilot project gets underway in B.C.
Beginning Tuesday, B.C. will start a three-year trial to test the effects of drug decriminalization in the province.
The First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) in B.C. says on its website that people 18 years of age or older will be able to possess a cumulative amount of 2.5 grams of certain illicit drugs without fines, arrest or seizure.
“B.C. gets to be the guinea pig, if you like, for this pilot project with the federal government,” Saskatchewan Minister for Justice Bronwyn Eyre said in December 2022 after the plan was announced.
The drugs being decriminalized in B.C. are opioids, including heroin and fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamines and MDMA (ecstasy), with the FNHA noting that these are the drugs that are poisoned in B.C.’s toxic drug supply.
B.C.’s goal is for this to reduce shame and stigma surrounding drug use so people can feel more comfortable seeking help.
“This will mean that many people are likely to be more open about their substance use, talk about it with friends, families and care providers, and feel like they do not have to hide their use – and use alone, where no one is available to provide naloxone or call for help,” FNHA’s website reads.
The government of Saskatchewan confirmed in a statement to Global News on Tuesday that it is not considering criminally exempting any drugs like methamphetamine or cocaine.
“It is unknown what potential long-term effects that decriminalizing illicit drugs will have with regards to public safety,” read the statement.
“The Government of Saskatchewan’s focus continues to be on funding programming and services to help individuals experiencing addictions issues and providing pathways to treatment.”
Saskatchewan Minister of Health Paul Merriman was asked for his reaction to the trial several times at a press conference on Tuesday. He said that decriminalization is not being considered in Saskatchewan and passed the question off to Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Everett Hindley.
“It’s not on our radar right now,” said Hindley. “We are focused here on treatment and recovery and the additional investments we have made towards harm reduction.
“Ultimately, we want to make sure that we are providing to people access and avenues to long-term treatment and recovery.”
B.C. confirmed that this does not mean that drugs are legalized.
“The drugs covered under this exemption remain illegal,” the province said in a release. “The selling (or trafficking) of controlled substances remains illegal under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, regardless of the amount.”
Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police president Rick Bourassa said that while there are no plans to decriminalize drugs in the province, it has been a conversation among authorities.
“We support it as long as the appropriate resources and supports are in place to make it successful,” said Bourassa.
He explained that if a similar trial were to be considered in Saskatchewan, police and authorities would look at the consequences of addictions in the community.
“One of the metrics that we would be looking at is the harms in terms of death in our province.”
The Saskatchewan Coroners Service reports that there were 200 suspected drug toxicity deaths in the province between Jan. 1, 2022, and Oct. 31.
Executive director Kayla DeMong of Prairie Harm Reduction in Saskatoon said she hopes this is a move in the right direction for the country.
“It will be really interesting to see what happens on the justice side of things as far as if people will still continue to be harassed and arrested,” said DeMong.
DeMong feels strongly that decriminalization should be implemented across the country.
“Decriminalization has been shown in other countries to be incredibly beneficial and have huge impacts on the justice side of things and the social side of things.”
She said she has heard the topic being discussed locally in Saskatoon but wishes it would extend across Canada.
“We wish them all the success in the world that this is a successful program, and we will be speaking with them and learning from it as we move forward,” Bourassa said.
“It’s a conversation that needs to continue.”
— with files from Global News’ Brody Langager, Amy Judd and Kristen Robinson