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The biggest problem with common sense, it has often been said, is that it isn’t all that common.
Common sense was, however, on full display last week when the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police released a report whose recommendations include a call for the decriminalization of simple drug possession. It’s time, the CACP says, for personal drug use and addiction to be considered a public-health issue rather than a criminal concern.
In its 14-page report, titled Decriminalization for Simple Possession of Illicit Drugs: Exploring Impacts on Public Safety and Policing, the CACP declares that "evidence suggests, and numerous Canadian health leaders support, decriminalization for simple possession as an effective way to reduce the public-health and public-safety harms associated with substance use," and endorses "alternatives to criminal sanctions for simple possession of illicit drugs, requiring integrated partnerships and access to diversion measures."
Canada’s police chiefs aren’t suggesting law enforcement has no role to play in stemming the drug trade, however; what the CACP is suggesting is that ever-overburdened police resources would be better focused on stopping those who produce, import and sell illegal drugs.
It’s a view that Winnipeg’s police chief supports. In fact, Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth says local law enforcement has already shifted the focus of its drug-enforcement strategy by opting, in many cases, not to lay charges for possession of small quantities of drugs.
"That’s just not really a good use" of police resources," Mr. Smyth said last Friday, adding that police officers can exercise discretion in such cases and "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."
Interestingly, what Winnipeg’s police chief is describing, in terms of a redirection of effort and resources, is very much in keeping with the changes being demanded by the current "defund the police" movement. The somewhat-controversial slogan has been wrongly interpreted as a demand to abolish traditional policing, but in reality it speaks more practically to the need for police to focus on law-enforcement duties while turning social-service and public-health issues — and therefore, necessarily, the related public funding — over to agencies better suited to addressing them.
Canada’s police chiefs aren’t suggesting law enforcement has no role to play in stemming the drug trade, however; what the CACP is suggesting is that ever–overburdened police resources would be better focused on stopping those who produce, import and sell illegal drugs.
Mr. Smyth rightly points out that the recommendations in the CACP’s report — which also include, among other things, a focus on safe consumption sites and a safe supply of drugs, as well as support for diversion programs — cannot be effectively implemented without "a lot of work ... on the political side."
In Manitoba, built-in challenges await any such implementation. While safe-consumption sites have been established, with productive results, in several other jurisdictions, the Pallister government continues to reject them as an element of Manitoba’s strategy for addressing illegal drug use and addiction.
The question of decriminalization, however, rests with the federal government and the Criminal Code. In response to the CACP report, Justice Minister David Lametti and Health Minister Patty Hajdu issued a joint statement that the government is also committed to a "public-health approach" to illegal drug use involving "integrated partnerships between law enforcement and health and social services."
What remains, then, is to move smartly forward with decriminalization in a manner that will allow police to focus on their jobs and offer those struggling with drug dependency a navigable path toward the help they so desperately require. One might even be tempted to call the bill The Common Sense Drug Act.
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