Police chiefs call for decriminalization of personal drug possession

A recommendation by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police that simple possession of illicit drugs be decriminalized is a giant step in the right direction for public health, says an illicit-drug expert with Victoria police.

“This is a monumental day for drug reform in Canada,” said Staff Sgt. Conor King, who has been on the front lines of the opioid crisis since 2014. “People should not be arrested for being addicted to drugs.”

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Police officers in Vancouver and Victoria have long recognized there is little value in arresting people for simple possession, King said.

“We have viewed this as a health crisis for many years now, but this legitimizes the position of many front-line police officers. This would provide a national framework, giving police officers comfort in knowing that their decision to not charge somebody is supported in law.”

The report by the association’s special committee on decriminalization of illicit drugs calls for the creation of a national task force to research drug policy reform.

It recommends that all police agencies in Canada recognize substance abuse and addiction as a public-health issue to help reduce drug overdoses and calls for changes to the section of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act related to simple possession.

“Canada continues to grapple with the fentanyl crisis and a poisoned drug supply that has devastated our communities and taken thousands of lives,” association president and Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer said in a statement. “We recommend that enforcement for possession give way to an integrated health-focused approach that requires partnerships between police, health care and all levels of government.”

In May, B.C. saw 170 illicit-drug deaths, the highest number ever recorded in a single month.

B.C. Premier John Horgan said he also supports the police chiefs’ recommendation and has made B.C.’s position clear to the federal government.

“Anything that we can do to reduce the deaths and to reduce the dependence and to … quite frankly, free up law enforcement to do other things, I support,” said Horgan.

The association is proposing increased access to health care, treatment and social services to divert people struggling with substance use or addiction away from the criminal justice system.

Diversion would apply to individuals in possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal consumption.

The changes would improve health and safety for drug users, while reducing property crime, repeat offences and the demand for drugs in communities, the association said.

It said enforcement and the courts should be focused on targeting organized crime, drug trafficking and the illegal production and importing of drugs.

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