Should the N.W.T. decriminalize drugs? Some say it's 'long overdue'

·5 min read

As the City of Vancouver seeks to decriminalize the personal possession of illegal drugs, Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson says the territory should consider dealing with addictions as a health issue, rather than a criminal one.

Johnson, as part of a special report on CBC's Trailbreaker, says that decriminalization is "long overdue."

"[Decriminalization] has proven to reduce the number of drug users, save lives and save a lot of money for government," Johnson said.

Policing and incarcerating people with addictions is costly, ineffective and harmful, and this money could be better spent on health and wellness, he contends.

Almost 20 years ago, Portugal decriminalized all drugs and now boasts one of the lowest addiction rates in all of Europe.

Portuguese citizens caught with a narcotic are given a warning and connected with public health agencies that provide counselling or other support. The country also provides mandatory drug education.

Johnson's constituents say the use of crack cocaine affects them and their families, and that the drug supply in the territory has been tainted with other dangerous substances, including carfentanil.

Johnson said that while decriminalization will not stop drug use, it will reduce harm and the number of drug users.

"It's clear there is such a level of stigma and fear that people are denying the problem. People are not able to talk about it and so decriminalization just allows us to have the conversation," he said.

"The way public health approaches education and reducing stigma does a much better job than judges, prisons and police officers."

Alcohol presents greater harm, says N.W.T. official

Any Canadian jurisdiction can seek an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, and the federal health minister can grant an exemption for health or scientific reasons.

The territory's justice department is not asking the federal government for any exemption that would grant local decriminalization.

N.W.T. Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Andy Delli Pizzi said alcohol, not illicit drugs, presents the greatest harm to residents.

Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada
Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada

Delli Pizzi said the territory is keeping an eye on how illicit drug use affects residents.

There is also the federal Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act, which is a "little bit of decriminalization," he said. The act allows a person in possession of illicit drugs to phone emergency services without being prosecuted for possession.

Johnson agrees that alcohol is a key concern in the North, but says that decriminalization could be a cost-effective way to save millions and reallocate that spending to treatment.

"We have a policy choice to make that saves the territorial government money and saves lives," he said.

The public health case for decriminalization

Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Teresa Tam has called for a national conversation about decriminalization.

In its report Care, Not Corrections, the Canadian Mental Health Association says criminalization stigmatizes people, and even stops them from accessing interventions that would save their lives.

Marilou Gagnon, the president of Harm Reduction Nurses Association, says "people who are incarcerated don't leave prison healthier" and that people who use substances use more in prison and emerge with more trauma and mental health issues.

Gagnon said it is difficult to provide healthcare to people experiencing complex health and social issues when they risk incarceration.

Harm reduction not about stopping drug use

Peyton Straker is an Indigenous northerner who grew up in Yellowknife, and lives in Vancouver where they have been on the front lines of harm reduction efforts.

"Harm reduction is giving people the right to survive however they know how," they said.

Focusing only on alcohol is "exclusionary" for people using drugs like crack, said Straker.

"It may not be as visible to politicians as it is to people in communities who are actually using the drugs," they said.

While people feel prohibition of substances will help communities, they said, the stigma can be lethal.

"There is so much pressure to not drink and there is so much stigma associated with being an addict," they said.

Straker said they personally know people who have died because of "secrecy around drugs and alcohol."

Submitted by Peyton Straker
Submitted by Peyton Straker

Decriminalization could reduce overrepresentation in jails

Straker said Indigenous people are over-represented in jails, and those who come into contact with law enforcement are often unhoused and self-medicating as a result of trauma resulting from Canadian colonialism.

"The loss that is experienced by our community through the incarceration of Indigenous people is massive," they said. "These are people who haven't committed a violent crime, who are struggling with mental health issues."

Straker said criminalization of substances also disproportionately targets Black people.

In the North though, "the impact of decriminalization would be felt most profoundly by Dene people and people who are from those territories," they said.

While problematic alcohol use affects the territory greatly, harm reduction would include a safe supply, managed alcohol programs and healing spaces that welcome people who are still actively using drugs and alcohol.

Drug-related policing not tracked in N.W.T.

The government of the N.W.T. says it does not track spending on drug enforcement and incarceration for drug-related offences.

NWT RCMP declined an interview on the cost of policing drugs, and said they receive roughly 80 drug-related calls for service each year.

The territorial government's budget for 2020/2021 includes $47 million for policing, $14 million for court services and $38 million for corrections.

The budget provides $17 million for community mental wellness and addictions recovery, and $19 million for Indigenous health and community wellness.

Federal efforts

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith proposed two bills dealing with illicit drugs: one which would remove criminal penalties for possessing personal amounts of illegal drugs; and another that would divert people away from the criminal justice system and toward health supports.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told CBC in September his government opposes decriminalization, and would focus on harm reduction measures like providing a safe-supply of drugs that are currently illegal.