Edmonton city council moving forward on decriminalization

On April 11, Edmonton city council was presented with an information report created by the city administration regarding the required steps to apply for an exemption under the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in order to reduce the incidence of overdose-related deaths. In 2021, 1,771 Alberta residents, including 674 Edmonton residents, died of a drug overdose.

The report was requested by Coun. Michael Janz, who had previously stated that he heard widespread support for this action from his council colleagues. Subsequently, the city’s community and public services committee voted 5-0 to develop a decriminalization strategy to request an exemption from the federal government.

Councillors Tim Cartmell, Michael Janz, Keren Tang, and Jo-Anne Wright all voted for the motion, which was brought forward by Mayor Amarjeet Sohi. The motion advocates for progress on “safe supply, safe consumption sites, treatment and supportive housing,” including requesting funding from the province and federal governments. However, the plan still needs to be approved by the city council.

“We realize that decriminalization is one step that we can take to remove the stigma and help people move towards treatment and it helps us move towards a public health model rather than a carceral model,” Janz said in his interview with the Edmonton Journal. “We know decriminalization is but one measure, there’s multiple measures that need to be taken. Safe supply, permanent supportive housing, harm reduction, drug testing, all of these, we need to try anything we can.”

Moreover, Janz added that it is critical for the city to move ahead with a broad coalition of community members, including researchers, public health experts, and individuals who use drugs to create a public health model. “We need to treat this for what it is, a crisis resulting in inadequate action on poverty, mental health, and trauma,” he said.

A number of harm-reduction advocates and medical professionals have been calling on Edmonton city councillors to move forward with decriminalization efforts.

“We need to decriminalize minor drug offences, because we know that while it doesn’t really deter substance use, it has a significant impact on harm,” said Elaine Hyshka, a researcher and professor at the University of Alberta in her interview with CTV News.

Other Canadian jurisdictions have already submitted requests to Health Canada for exemptions to allow for personal possession of illicit drugs, including Toronto Public Health, The City of Vancouver, and British Columbia. In addition, Ottawa, Montreal, and Winnipeg are also currently discussing the possibility of requesting an exemption.

“This is not a criminality problem, but absent safe supply, and absent harm reduction, we see these impacts on our criminal justice system,” said Janz. “We need to have a much more empathetic, compassionate, frank conversation and that’s why this has to be a public health issue.”

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