Is Saskatoon ready for drug decriminalization? City, police officials say not yet

·4 min read
A man prepares heroin at the Insite safe injection clinic in Vancouver, B.C., in a 2011 file photo. B.C. has recently announced a drug decriminalization pilot project. Saskatoon city committee and Board of Police Commissioners members discussed decriminalization at a special joint meeting Wednesday afternoon. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)
A man prepares heroin at the Insite safe injection clinic in Vancouver, B.C., in a 2011 file photo. B.C. has recently announced a drug decriminalization pilot project. Saskatoon city committee and Board of Police Commissioners members discussed decriminalization at a special joint meeting Wednesday afternoon. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)

A committee room of City of Saskatoon and police officials discussing the decriminalization of small amounts of drugs Wednesday afternoon repeatedly returned to the question: would that be putting the cart before the horse?

Saskatoon police criminal investigation Supt. Patrick Nogier first raised that question at the special joint meeting of Saskatoon city committee and Board of Police Commissioners members, referring to the health and support services the city would need for substance users if the city chose to decriminalize some drug possession.

Mayor Charlie Clark also pointed to "some significant gaps right now in being able to respond to the crisis that is affecting addictions … in our community."

He listed off long wait lists for treatment, which is sometimes designed to treat people addicted to alcohol rather than other substances.

In April, the Saskatoon Board of Police Commissioners reviewed reports on decriminalization and decided to push the matter forward to Wednesday's meeting with the city's governance and priorities committee.

A report authored by two University of Saskatchewan researchers submitted to the police board in April said decriminalization would benefit people who use drugs and society as a whole.

The decriminalization of simple possession is one tool that can stabilize or reduce the harm for people living with addictions, researchers Lori Hanson and Barbara Fornssler wrote.

Dayne Patterson/CBC
Dayne Patterson/CBC

The report said there was evidence to suggest decriminalization "may effectively reduce drug toxicity deaths by reducing exposure to a toxic and unregulated drug supply."

Benefits would also include increased access to harm reduction services that can lessen disease transmission, better relationships with police, less work for police, and lower costs for the health and legal systems, the report said.

Last month, the federal and B.C. governments announced a three-year pilot project — the first of its kind in Canada — that will allow people in B.C. who are 18 and older to possess up to a cumulative 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA, without risk of arrest, charge or seizure.

Officials at Wednesday's meeting favoured watching the B.C. pilot, hoping to gain some insight into the possibility of implementing it in Saskatoon.

"What I saw today was a real desire from our community to do what's best for our people who are suffering," said Saskatoon police Chief Troy Cooper.

"By examining what our current state is and examining the data we see out of B.C., we'll be able to make good decisions."

City should strive for decriminalization: report

The researchers' report recommends the city and police strive to make Saskatoon the first Canadian Prairie city where simple drug possession is decriminalized.

That would require an exemption from Health Canada. Until then, they suggested the city could have law enforcement officers refrain from imposing criminal charges on people found with a personal amount of illegal drugs.

That's something Cooper says officers are already doing in Saskatoon, in a "de facto" decriminalization.

"We still charge people, although rarely, with simple possession," he said, noting charges are often only sought in extenuating circumstances, like when the person has an outstanding warrant.

Don Somers/CBC
Don Somers/CBC

Typically, officers avoid the charges, and when they are laid, they are withdrawn nearly 80 per cent of the time, he said.

The police force is expected to bring more statistics to the table in the fall, considering what kind of charges the police are laying, how often they're laid and how they play out.

At that point, the city will have a chance to consider B.C.'s experience and the Saskatoon police data.

Sask. government not supportive of policy

The Saskatchewan government said earlier this month that it would not pursue a policy like B.C.'s.

Clark said lacking that alignment from all levels of government "makes it very difficult to effectively respond to what's going on in the community."

"We have work to do to get all the parties working together," but can learn from B.C.'s experience in the meantime, he said.

Cooper said it doesn't make sense for a municipality to make policy changes, and suggested Saskatoon's decriminalization lies in Ottawa's hands.

Hanson and Fornssler's report said that "global evidence … clearly shows that drug prohibition does not reduce drug use, and decriminalization does not increase drug use."

They also warned there are consequences to sticking with the status quo.

In that situation, current rates "of opioid poisoning deaths, HIV/AIDS in Saskatoon, incarceration rates, or disparities experienced by BIPOC in the city … may worsen," they wrote.

They encouraged the formation of a multi-agency group to tackle harm reduction and drug toxicity in the city, with decriminalization as one tool.

A report from Cooper that includes localized statistics was also included in the agenda for Wednesday.

It, too, was put forward to the board of police commissioners in April.

It concluded that the evaluation of evidence-based harm reduction strategies is best accomplished through post-secondary-based research proposals, and recommended the board consider the research report.

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