Sask. government not considering decriminalization of small amounts of illicit drugs

·4 min read
Saskatchewan will not be pursuing an agreement with the federal government to decriminalize small amounts of illicit drugs. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC - image credit)
Saskatchewan will not be pursuing an agreement with the federal government to decriminalize small amounts of illicit drugs. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC - image credit)

The Saskatchewan government will not be following their B.C. counterparts in decriminalizing small amounts of illicit drugs.

On Tuesday, the federal government and B.C. government made a joint announcement — the first of its kind in Canada.

Canadians 18 and older will be able to possess up to a cumulative 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA within British Columbia.

The exemption will operate as a three-year pilot project and means there will be no arrests, charges, or seizures for personal possession at or below the 2.5-gram threshold.

The Saskatchewan government will not be the next province in line to pursue the policy.

"The government of Saskatchewan is not considering any decision to criminally exempt substances like methamphetamine and cocaine," a government spokesperson said in a statement.

"It is unknown what potential long-term effects that decriminalizing illicit drugs will have with regards to public safety."

The government said it is focused on treatment and recovery of people with substance issues.

It said 150 addictions treatment spaces are being added across the province in the next three years.

The governments of Alberta, Manitoba, and Quebec said this week they will not be pursuing small-scale decriminalization.

Toxic drugs killed 464 people last year

Opposition justice critic Nicole Sarauer said the "addictions crisis should be treated as a health issue, less of a criminal issue."

"It's not actually a huge change from how simple possession charges are being addressed, especially in our major centres in Regina and Saskatoon in particular, where a bit of a discretionary approach is taken."

Bryan Eneas/CBC
Bryan Eneas/CBC

Sarauer said she would like to see safe consumption sites funded before decriminalization is implemented.

In Saskatchewan in 2021, 464 people were confirmed or suspected to have died due to drug toxicity, according to the Saskatchewan Coroners Service. In 2019, there were 179 such deaths.

Safe consumption sites

Saskatoon's Prairie Harm Reduction is the only organization in Saskatchewan with a federal exemption to operate a safe consumption site.

In 2021, the organization saw 577 people access its site. They treated seven overdoses and did not have a fatality on site.

The provincial government provides funding to Prairie Harm Reduction but not the $1 million the organization has requested to operate its safe consumption operation.

"The safe consumption site is a tool for engagement. It's a tool for education. This idea of bringing people in rather than pushing them out allows us to bring people into services and engage them in conversations and education about their drug use," said Kayla DeMong, executive director of Prairie Harm Reduction.

Kendall Latimer/CBC
Kendall Latimer/CBC

DeMong said PHR's services are aiming to also combat the rise in HIV infections through injection drug use.

Saskatchewan's rate of HIV infections is double the national average.

When it comes to the issue of decriminalization, DeMong said the 2.5-gram threshold established in the B.C. pilot is perhaps too low.

DeMong said she recently spoke to Vancouver Island NDP MP Gord Johns who introduced private member's bill C-216, which would decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs across Canada and expunge certain drug-related convictions. It was voted down by MPs on Thursday.

DeMong said if the federal government eventually moves to decriminalize across Canada it needs to be mandatory.

"If it's an opt-out, opt-in opportunity for different provinces, what we will see in Saskatchewan is that they will opt out," she said.

Saskatoon and Regina police boards discuss decriminalization

Last August, Saskatoon's board of police commissioners asked for a report looking into expanding harm reduction programs in the city, including decriminalizing simple possession.

After a meeting in April, the board decided the issue required further study.

DeMong said Saskatoon Police Chief Troy Cooper has been open about the issue of how police deal with drug possession.

"It's a case by case situation where they're using their skills to assess whether or not somebody needs to be arrested."

Yasmine Ghania/CBC
Yasmine Ghania/CBC

Last September, Regina's police board passed a motion to develop a report that would look at the feasibility of decriminalizing simple possession of drugs in Regina.

"Substance use disorder is a health problem, it's intricately woven into a larger sort of social issue as well. So [decriminalization] may be one of those tools that we would want to implement, but not in the absence of the supports," Regina Mayor Sandra Masters said Thursday.

Masters said she is looking for federal government support to expand services and hours at Regina's only safe consumption site. The Nēwo Yōtina Friendship Centre has a provincial exemption to operate a safe consumption site, which expires in September.

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