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Police Chiefs Group Calls for Canada to Decriminalize Drug Possession

The group representing police chiefs from across Canada is calling for the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of drugs.

In a news conference Thursday, Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer, who is the head of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, said “arresting individuals for simple possession of illicit drugs is ineffective. It does not save lives.”

A report released by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) said decriminalization would mean using fines and warnings for possession of small quantities of drugs. The report said currently Vancouver police’s policy “supports charges only if the behaviour and circumstances of the person using drugs is harmful to that person, to others, or to property.”

Vancouver is ground zero for Canada’s opioid overdose crisis. More than 5,000 people have died of overdoses in B.C. since 2016, when the crisis was declared a public health emergency. There were 170 fatal overdoses in the province in May, the deadliest month recorded.

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The CACP report said figuring out a model for a legal safe supply “would be complicated and take time.” The report said a public health approach could mean strict government control of the production, purity, strength, sale, and marketing of various drugs.

The CACP said it does not support the legalization of drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine or opioids, but it does support “evidence based medical treatment that includes a safe supply.”

The move is a significant step for the CACP, which said it was against the legalization or decriminalization of cannabis in a 2013 resolution. Cannabis became legal in Canada in fall 2018.

Drug policy activists and public health experts have long stated that decriminalization isn’t enough to combat the overdose crisis. They are calling for a safe legal supply of drugs as an alternative to the poisoned street drugs currently available.

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In June, activists handed out free doses of cocaine and opium in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside that had been tested for fentanyl and other contaminants.

The CACP is calling for a federal task force composed of Public Safety, the Department of Justice, the Public Prosecution Service, Health Canada, the CACP, and experts to amend the Criminal Code in support of decriminalization of simple possession.

The organization said enforcement efforts should be focused on drug manufacturers, dealers, and traffickers.

Dr. Hakique Virani, a public health and addiction medicine specialist at the University of Alberta said while the announcement is positive in some ways, it is frustrating in its lack of acknowledgement that drug laws disproportionately harm Black and Indigenous people.

“Until you recognize the reasons why drug policies are unjust, you cannot craft good reformed drug policy,” he said.

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Virani said framing drug consumption as solely a public health issue is also problematic, as many drug users experience racism in the healthcare system and not everyone who uses drugs wants or needs medical intervention.

While Virani said it’s good that the CACP is acknowledging evidence in support of a safe legal supply of drug, the organization’s disapproval of legalizing cocaine and meth is arbitrary.

“Alcohol is definitely our most harmful drug when looking at most population health indicators,” he said.

Virani said funding for enforcing drug laws should be reallocated to improve the quality of life for marginalized drug consumers.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has previously said he was not ready to consider decriminalization as part of a solution to the opioid crisis. Conservatives have repeatedly gone after Trudeau on the file, falsely suggesting he has plans to legalize all drugs.

Follow Manisha on Twitter.

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