Sask. mayor sees B.C. drug decriminalization as learning opportunity as advocates push for national policy

·3 min read
B.C. will become the first jurisdiction in Canada to decriminalize personal possession of a small amount of illegal drugs as of early next year. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)
B.C. will become the first jurisdiction in Canada to decriminalize personal possession of a small amount of illegal drugs as of early next year. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The announcement that possession of small amounts of some hard drugs will be decriminalized in B.C. was greeted by advocates there as a key victory, but it's receiving a more cautious reception by one mayor a few provinces east.

In an interview on Rosemary Barton Live that aired Sunday, Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark acknowledged the need to tackle the crisis of toxic drug overdoses across the country — including in his own city — and said the B.C. case could be "a step that could help us learn how to do it in a different way."

Clark told CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton that all levels of government in B.C. were committed to the decriminalization strategy, something that was not the case in Saskatchewan. The provincial government there has said they will not follow B.C.'s lead. Saskatoon and Regina's police boards are studying the issue.

"We don't have the same alignment between the municipal police and provincial governments that we see in British Columbia, which is why in Saskatchewan I think what we need to do is keep understanding in our province what the best way to tackle this [is]," he said.

WATCH | Saskatoon mayor, B.C. mother discuss prospect of drug possession decriminalization:

Clark also said that few possession charges were proceeding to convictions but that Saskatoon lacks crucial diversion and treatment programs.

He described record numbers of toxic overdose deaths and surging uses of anti-overdose drugs by first responders in his city, a sign of a worsening toxic drug problem that is present in much of the country. His city was also focused on supportive housing and other programs to help address the crisis.

"We know that an exemption alone, decriminalization alone without those pathways and supports — it can also create a risk."

Decriminalization just part of the solution: B.C. mother

In B.C., where personal possession of up to a cumulative 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA will be decriminalized starting Jan. 31 of next year, the number of suspected toxic drug overdoses reached record highs last year, with over 2,200 deaths.

Kathleen Radu lost her son to a toxic drug overdose. She told Barton that the exemption granted by the federal government to B.C. that allows for decriminalization does not go far enough.

"I think it's just one wall in the house that we need to build against this crisis," Radu said. "Basically, this exemption has put a Band-Aid over a bullet hole."

WATCH | Federal, B.C. governments announce small-scale drug decriminalization in province: 

Radu denounced the decision by the federal government, supported by Conservative MPs, to vote down Bill C-216, a private member's bill put forward by NDP MP Gord Johns that would have decriminalized drug possession across the country.

"This is a health crisis and the toxic drugs are not going away," she said. "And if anything, it's going to get worse. We've already buried too many children. Too many families' lives have been shattered to stop now."

Speaking in the House of Commons Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did say the government was open to "working with any other jurisdiction that wants to take on this responsible approach."

LISTEN | NDP MP Gord Johns on his effort to decriminalize drug possession nationwide: 

Johns, who represents the B.C. riding of Courtenay—Alberni, told host Chris Hall of CBC's The House that the government had failed to take a national approach to deal with a national crisis.

"Incrementalism kills when it comes to the toxic drug crisis, and we need the government to move rapidly in responding to it," he said in the interview, which aired Saturday.

Johns noted that 14 Liberal MPs had defected from the government to vote in favour of his bill and accused the government of holding back in order to keep political favour.

"It's extremely disappointing, given the large amount of loss of life that they don't want to hear from the experts. This isn't a vote winner. And that's really what it comes down to. Politics is killing people."

You can watch full episodes of Rosemary Barton Live on CBC Gem, the CBC's streaming service.

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