OTTAWA — A group of organizations, including some that represent drug users and their families, are calling for money to be diverted from police to community agencies that promote safe supply and address mental health concerns.
The coalition, which also includes human rights organizations, front-line service providers and researchers, has released a framework for drug decriminalization.
Their framework calls for funds that would flow to police to be invested instead in community-based organizations, services that promote harm reduction and address mental health issues, safe supply programs, and other forms of healing.
The organizations said in a statement that the current approach to drug use, which is punitive and tries to deter people from using, is a "failed experiment" that has disproportionately harmed Indigenous and Black people.
Sandra Ka Hon Chu, executive director of the HIV Legal Network, said the coalition felt the need to develop their own vision of drug decriminalization that met the needs of people who use drugs, instead of what municipalities, police or prosecutors felt was the right way to approach the issue.
Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, one of the contributors to the platform, said their proposed policy shift would help change a "historically cruel" use of criminal law that has harmed Canadians.
Ka Hon Chu said that since the majority of drug use is not problematic in that most people who use drugs are not dependent. The coalition takes the position that most of the time there is no need to make mandatory referrals, and if there is a health-related need for interventions, the person involved should opt for it voluntarily.
Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, agrees more capacity is needed for services that get to the root cause of underlying issues that bring people in contact with the police.
But Stamatakis said that the way forward is not an "either or proposition" between policing and social services.
Instead, he said what is needed is a "collaborative approach" between police and service providers to adequately respond to the needs of people while also mitigating risks to public safety.
The coalition's national call comes days after the federal government tabled Bill C-5, which would repeal mandatory minimum penalties for drug offences and some gun-related crimes, and would require police and prosecutors to consider alternative measures for cases of simple drug possession.
The coalition said that the government's bill "is a step in the right direction, but doesn't go far enough."
Ka Hon Chu said the coalition would want firstly a full repeal of section four of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which is the section that criminalizes personal drug possession, a move that would go further than the changes proposed in Bill C-5.
She said they would also want to decriminalize necessity trafficking, which is the selling or sharing of drugs for subsistence to support personal drug use costs.
"No one has been unaffected by the overdose crisis in Canada. I think it's really touched so many of us and there's a feeling of urgency that the government needs to act now," she said.
The offices of Justice Minister David Lametti and Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday.
Asked about his position on decriminalization at a news conference on Tuesday, Lametti said he would leave it to Bennett and the government "as a whole" to address the existing requests from B.C. and Toronto for exemptions to decriminalize personal possession of illicit drugs.
In an interview with The Canadian Press in November, Bennett said that meetings with political and front-line stakeholders in B.C. would be key to finding an approach toward providing a safe supply of the drug alongside decriminalizing possession.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 9, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Erika Ibrahim, The Canadian Press