Sask. not following B.C. on decriminalization path

Advocates for drug decriminalization at a 2018 rally in Vacnouver. This week, B.C. began a three-year pilot that will allow possession of small amounts of drugs. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC - image credit)
Advocates for drug decriminalization at a 2018 rally in Vacnouver. This week, B.C. began a three-year pilot that will allow possession of small amounts of drugs. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC - image credit)

Harm reduction advocates say Saskatchewan should follow B.C.'s lead when it comes to decriminalization of drugs, but the provincial government said it has no intention to do so.

This week, the federal government and B.C. launched a three-year pilot allowing people 18 and older to possess small amounts of certain illicit drugs without being charged. Last year, the federal government granted B.C. an exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA).

But do not expect Saskatchewan to lobby Ottawa for the same arrangement.

On Wednesday, Justice Minister Bronwyn Eyre said the provincial government is not interested in decriminalization at this time.

"We aren't entertaining decriminalization in terms of the partnership between B.C. and the federal government. We feel the rehabilitation side, which we've invested millions of dollars in, is very important and is our very fulsome response to the issue."

In B.C., people 18 and older can now legally possess up to 2.5 grams of the following four drugs:

  • Cocaine (crack and powder).

  • Methamphetamine.

  • MDMA.

  • Opioids (including heroin, fentanyl and morphine).

Eyre said the government has questions about the B.C. plan and that it differs from other jurisdictions that "have gone on this path" by decriminalizing certain "hard drugs."

"Fentanyl and meth, the really serious ones, there are a lot of questions about is that a good idea, and we would respectfully say no in Saskatchewan."

Eyre said there are questions about "what the Portuguese model actually accomplishes."

In 2000, to deal with an addictions epidemic, Portugal began decriminalizing all drugs. It saw addiction rates and HIV rates drop.

Portugal also has 170 recovery facilities for a population of 11 million people, and provides mental-health treatment and mandatory education about the harmful effects of drugs.

Saskatchewan's Minister for Mental Health and Addictions Everett Hindley told the media on Tuesday that decriminalization was "not on our radar right now."

Hindley pointed to provincial initiatives to add drug treatment spaces and money for harm reduction.

But Kayla DeMong disagrees with the provincial government's approach. DeMong is the executive director of Saskatoon's Prairie Harm Reduction.

"For a province like Saskatchewan, where we are still focusing so much on prevention and treatment and not looking at supporting people while they use substances, decriminalization goes a long way in showing that people that use substances deserve to be treated better in our society."

DeMong said the province's response to the drug use and overdoses has not worked.

"Their inaction around looking at innovative approaches, looking at things beyond treatment, is causing people to die in this community and those deaths are a direct result of the policies put forward by this government."

Saskatchewan's coroners service released preliminary overdose numbers last month. They showed a record number of overdose deaths in 2022. The latest figures say there were 204 confirmed and 217 suspected drug deaths in the province in 2022. The total of 421 would surpass the record of 401 set in 2021.

DeMong said there are some concerns with a decriminalization model that requires users to get treatment and counselling, because "not everyone who uses substances has a substance use disorder."

"There is a risk of overburdening our already struggling treatment system if we were to put in mechanisms [saying] that everyone found with substances needs to access these supports."

DeMong said the idea that everyone who uses substances "needs help" is "really out of date."

Opposition NDP health critic Vicki Mowat did not take a position on decriminalization when asked on Wednesday.

Mowat said the government is failing to create enough supports in the community.

"Unfortunately the result of that is the stark numbers of overdose deaths that we have that are breaking records in terrible ways," Mowat said. "We know that we have to work to provide those supports. And I look forward to doing more consultations with the police chiefs to learn more about this."

Saskatchewan's police chiefs have heard the arguments for decriminalization.

Last year police and officials in both Regina and Saskatoon received a report from University of Saskatchewan researchers that recommended decriminalizing simple possession of drugs.

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.

Neither city moved any further toward decriminalization.

Saskatoon Police Chief Troy Cooper and Regina Police Chief Evan Bray have both said "de facto" decriminalization exists.

In June, Cooper said, "we still charge people, although rarely, with simple possession."

Bray has said the force has focused in recent years on cutting off the supply of drugs and laying drug trafficking charges.

The Regina Police Service said in a statement that if officers arrest someone for breaking and entering and they happen to have a small amount of drugs, the person will be charged for break and enter, and not charged for possession. The drugs will then be destroyed.

DeMong said "de facto" is not sufficient, because it leaves too much room for interpretation.