In a notice of motion introduced by two Winnipeg city councillors, Sherri Rollins and Markus Chambers, the city’s chief administrative officer (CAO) has been requested to work with the federal government on receiving an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
In recent months, the cities of Toronto and Vancouver have already made such requests from the federal government.
“Criminalization makes it difficult for people to use drugs to access harm and reduction services,” Rollins said. “It increases risks and subjects them to even more health harm sometimes which is injury and disease or social harm such as joblessness and homelessness.”
Rollins also added that the amount of drugs that would be considered a small amount still needs to be discussed. The notice motion also states that according to research, there is “racial bias within police investigations and prosecutions of drug crimes resulting in Black and Indigenous people dramatically over-represented in drug possession arrests and convictions as a result”.
In 2020, a total of 372 Manitoba residents died due to illicit drug overdoses. “We’re in a drug poisoning crisis and it continues unabated, and work should continue unabated,” Rollins said.
According to Shohan Illsley, the executive director of the Manitoba Harm Reduction Network, she hopes Winnipeg will decriminalize small amounts of drugs for personal use as part of its harm reduction strategy.
“We’ve been talking about it for years, but to have at least some level of government engaged in the conversation is definitely exciting for us,” said Illsley. “This is a win for people who use drugs.”
Furthermore, Illsley added that individuals who use drugs must be included in the policy-making process, while involving the criminal justice system makes it more difficult for them to access essential services.
“If we decriminalize, we can now potentially start advocating and providing services to help deal with the overdose crisis,” she said. “This is literally just a first step to start to support our relatives who potentially can die from toxic drug supply.”
The Manitoba Association of Chiefs of Police has also endorsed specific aspects of decriminalization of illicit drugs. On its website, the association has expressed support for recommendations including decriminalizing the simple possession of illicit drugs, while noting that it would not make them legal.
Specifically, on its website, the association recommends that the penalty for possessing small amounts of illegal drugs “is either reduced/changed from a criminal conviction to a fine or other type of sanction.”