Winnipeg’s police chief says he supports decriminalizing drug possession and setting up safe consumption sites in an effort to treat drug use as a health issue, not a crime.
A day after the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police publicly called for national drug policy reform that would allow Canadian police to hand out fines for simple possession of street drugs instead of laying criminal charges, Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth said his police department already tries to avoid charging people for possession of small quantities of drugs.
"That’s just not a really good use" of police resources, he said in an interview Friday.
In 2018, WPS officers laid 316 possession charges under Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. The majority of those charges, 160, were for methamphetamine, and 54 were for cannabis, which was legalized in October of that year.
Updated police statistics set to be released later this month show charges for simple possession have been "steadily declining" in Winnipeg over the past few years, Smyth said.
Smyth said he hasn’t directed his officers not to lay simple possession charges, but said when they are laid, it’s most often in conjunction with other serious charges.
"I would hesitate to direct somebody to not enforce the law, but our officers certainly have a fair bit of discretion available to them. So again, when it comes to simple possession, I think a more effective way of dealing with that is to try to steer people into some of the programming that they may need, like addictions treatment, to deal with the problem. We’re not trying to criminalize people that are addicted to drugs. Our focus has been on those that are supplying and trafficking the drugs."
Smyth is on the board of directors for the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, which on Thursday released its findings from its committee on decriminalization of illicit drugs.
The committee started looking into the issue about two years ago following spikes in drug-overdose deaths across Canada, including those caused by fentanyl and other opioids, which highlighted the use of supervised drug consumption sites. There are no sites in Manitoba, but Smyth said the idea has merit.
"We don’t have quite the same numbers of overdose deaths here in Winnipeg or in Manitoba (compared with British Columbia), but we do still have some, and I still think that an idea like this has merit. And there’s a lot of work that would need to be done on the political side for it to happen, but this is a good first step, and one that’s being endorsed by the (police chiefs)" he said.
Health professionals have argued for years that drug use is a health concern that shouldn’t be subject to jail time.
The Manitoba Harm Reduction Network is among those advocates who say Canada’s drug policies need to go a step further: they want drugs to be legalized, not just decriminalized.
"Everybody, regardless of what their relationship is with their drugs, needs to be able to access a safe supply of it, just like you and I can walk into a Liquor Mart and know exactly what we are buying and we still have the agency and autonomy to make decisions around the alcohol we buy," said Shohan Illsley, executive director of the network.
"People who use other drugs, whether it’s heroin or methamphetamines, should be able to go and access exactly what they want and not be worried about if it is... contaminated with anything," she said.
Police chiefs don’t support legalization, said Abbotsford Police Chief Mike Serr, co-chair of the association’s decriminalization committee.
Their calls for decriminalization would require changes to Canada’s Criminal Code, but the federal government hasn’t made that commitment.
In a joint statement, federal Justice Minister David Lametti and federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu thanked the police chiefs for their recommendations and said the government is taking a "public-health approach" to problem drug use.
"We appreciate efforts made by law enforcement officers to consider alternative options to criminal charges for simple possession of illicit drugs in appropriate cases, and recognize the importance of reducing barriers to treatment, as well as integrated partnerships between law enforcement and health and social services.
"Working with other orders of government, substance use experts, service providers, first responders, law enforcement and people with lived and living experience, our government remains committed to advancing evidence-based responses to help reverse the trend of opioid overdose deaths and other substance-related harms in Canada," the statement reads.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.
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