Canada’s police chiefs support decriminalization of drug possession

Aug 14, 2020

Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer, who heads the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) is calling for the decriminalization of simple possession of illicit drugs. Instead, the CACP has proposed to improve access to health care, treatment and social services to deter people from the criminal justice system.

“Arresting individuals for simple possession of illicit drugs has proven to be ineffective, it does not save lives.”

Chief Adam Palmer, head of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police

Palmer added that the traditional role of frontline policing has changed to harm reduction when interacting with individuals who have addiction or mental-health problems. “Frequently, our officers are the point of first contact and the ones who will assist individuals in accessing appropriate services and pathways of care,” Palmer said.

However, possession of large quantities of drugs would still be considered a criminal offence. In his interview with Global News, Scott Bernstein, director of policy at the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition (CDPC), said he and many other public health experts across Canada have been advocating the concept of decriminalizing simple possession of illicit drugs.

“We have examples from jurisdictions all over the world that have decriminalized (possession) without the sky falling in. So far, we’ve largely faced resistance from federal and provincial governments to take action. So I think we’re certainly hopeful that maybe this is an opportunity to have another look at it.”

Scott Bernstein, director of policy at Canadian Drug Policy Coalition

According to CACP chiefs, enforcement and judicial efforts must continue to target trafficking and the illegal drug production and importation to block the supply of harmful substances coming to communities.

“We made the case that this (the coronavirus pandemic) is a situation where an exemption is warranted and the government should act,” said Bernstein. “It doesn’t require amendments to laws, it doesn’t require a long, drawn-out process. You know, anything that can reduce the stigma of drug use can save lives, and especially right now, as a response to this pandemic, I think we really need to look at.”

In addition, Bernstein has suggested that decriminalizing possession could help police and governments in their efforts to address systemic racism in the criminal justice system. 

The push to decriminalize simple possession has grown during the coronavirus pandemic. In British Columbia, 170 drug overdose deaths were reported in May, as the province’s highest-ever total since 2016.

In response to the recent increase in overdose fatalities, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry repeated her calls to decriminalize simple possession, stating that the pandemic has contributed to the death toll of the ongoing opioid crisis. Last year, Dr. Henry released a report advocating for decriminalization of simple possession, which was endorsed by the provincial government.

Other public health officials in B.C. have backed Henry’s report, including Premier John Horgan, who has urged the federal government to act on Dr. Henry’s advice, saying, “If not now, when?”