Drug decriminalization in province ‘premature’ says Alberta police chiefs

Click to play video: 'Alberta police chiefs pour cold water on idea of drug decriminalization'
Alberta police chiefs pour cold water on idea of drug decriminalization
WATCH: Alberta’s police chiefs are making it clear where they stand on the idea of decriminalizing small amounts of illicit drugs. Elissa Carpenter reports. – Feb 22, 2023

The Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police (AACP) said it would be “incredibly premature” to decriminalize drug possession in the province, adding community safety must be the priority.

The association said Wednesday a “systemic and ordered approach” must be in place before the province can consider decriminalizing drugs.

“There is an addictions crisis in our communities but there is no single, standalone fix,” Edmonton Police Service Chief Dale McFee said in a statement.

“We have to stop trying to ad-hoc our way out of this crisis by rushing to ideas like decriminalization, which will actually exacerbate challenges.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta government announces $4M for detox, pre-treatment at Calgary Drop-In Centre'
Alberta government announces $4M for detox, pre-treatment at Calgary Drop-In Centre

AACP president and Calgary Police Service Chief Mark Neufeld said collaborative efforts between social agencies, health providers and the judicial system will solve the “wickedly complex issue” of drug addiction.

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“We understand sweeping harm-reduction policies may present additional challenges in rural areas and we are committed to working collaboratively with our communities across the province to find solutions that work for them,” Neufeld said in a statement.

“Balancing the needs of the individual with the needs of the community is no easy task.”

The release comes after an AACP-commissioned research paper published by the Community Safety Knowledge Alliance said problematic use of substances is a complex social issue that needs a multi-faceted solution.

Decriminalization is part of a set of concepts and policies to address the harms associated with the use of illicit substances, the paper read.

But some experts believe decriminalization in Alberta needs to happen sooner rather than later.

Dr. Monty Ghosh is a clinical physician and an assistant professor at the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta.

Ghosh said the opioid crisis is a public health issue and decriminalization will empower people to seek treatment or resources to get them out of the cycle of addiction.

Click to play video: 'Political Panel: Drug decriminalization in B.C.'
Political Panel: Drug decriminalization in B.C.

Many people don’t seek help because they’re afraid of losing their jobs, their children and their possessions, he said.

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“Across the country, it’s mostly police who go to overdose calls and there’s a big fear of that and a concern that prevents people from seeking the help that they need,” Ghosh told QR Calgary.

“When drugs are decriminalized, we see people accessing help from supervised consumption sites and treatment facilities, but also asking for help when someone overdoses.”

There are also many models of decriminalization, including the one used in British Columbia.

As of the end of January, adults in that province with up to two-and-a-half grams of drugs for personal use — including opioids, cocaine and MDMA — are not arrested or charged.

While drugs are not legalized, the B.C. government said the goal is to reduce the shame and stigma surrounding drug use, which the province says keeps people from accessing life-saving services.

Other models, such as Portugal’s, have been more rigorously studied.

Click to play video: 'Calgary business owner advocates for harm reduction after saving someone from drug overdose'
Calgary business owner advocates for harm reduction after saving someone from drug overdose

In 2001, Portuguese legislators decriminalized low-level possession and consumption of all illicit drugs and reclassified them as administrative violations.

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The country also expanded its treatment and harm reduction services, including safe consumption sites and treatment centres.

This also included access to clean and safe syringes, which reduced HIV and AIDS incidents, according to a 2010 study by researchers Caitlin Elizabeth Hughes and Alex Stevens.

Ghosh said the Alberta government is looking at an accountability model for decriminalization where people might have to pay a fine or be asked to enrol themselves into treatment programs.

He added some form of decriminalization is better than none at all.

This is especially true for Indigenous and Black communities: First Nations people account for nearly 15 per cent of all toxic drug deaths in 2020, according to the First Nations Health Authority.

A York University study in 2012 found that former prime minister Stephen Harper’s Safe Streets and Communities Act disproportionately targeted Black men.

Click to play video: 'Officials hope B.C.’s drug decriminalization plan will reduce stigma around drug use'
Officials hope B.C.’s drug decriminalization plan will reduce stigma around drug use

“The concern that some people have is the government of Alberta going to mandate treatment or force people to go to treatment if they don’t comply. Or is this a situation where people can choose either jail time or treatment?” the physician said.

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“The (police chiefs’) main concern is that we need a broader system of care to support individuals… In my viewpoint, we are almost there.”

Ghosh noted the province also needs to have safe consumption sites and overdose prevention sites, which have been proven to reduce drug overdoses.

There’s also evidence that decentralized and robust harm reduction sites will reduce the risk of open-air drug use, crime and other social concerns, he said.

“It’s a life-saving measure. It’s a health measure. It’s definitely important to have and we need more of them,” he said.

“We need as many as we can, in as many jurisdictions as possible.”

–With files from Amy Judd and Kristen Robinson, Global News

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