Saskatoon Board of Police Commissioners to debate drug decriminalization

The Saskatoon Board of Police Commissioners is scheduled to discuss drug decriminalization in the city.

The policy of removing penalties for people carrying and using small amounts of drugs is on the agenda for the upcoming meeting, scheduled to take place this Thursday.

The board, comprised of city councilors and residents, will receive a report from the Saskatoon Police Service (SPS) while police examine how the policy change could impact the city and policing.

The report states decriminalization is not an effort to ignore the impact of illicit drugs on a community but that it aims to ensure people who possess small amounts of illegal substances not face legal issues for what is health-related behaviour.

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It also states the “threat of arrest/criminalization increases the likelihood of drug use in unsupervised locations, which in turn raises the risk of overdoses” and that a “criminal charge for possession of a small amount of illegal substances also places them in a justice system not adequately suited to deal with addiction and health challenges.”

It concludes by stating decriminalization would impact the local health system, support services and judiciary, and states the “Saskatoon Police Service is not adequately equipped to evaluate” the implications for those entities.

It also recommended board members read a study by two University of Saskatchewan professors.

Barb Fornssler, one of the authors, told Global News decriminalization still entails a role for law enforcement, especially with regards to drug trafficking.

It’s not legalization, like how the federal government legalized cannabis several years ago, she said. Decriminalization refers to the removal of laws regarding personal drug possession and use.

Fornssler said the purpose is to remove barriers to treatment, not to encourage widespread drug use.

“People with who are facing substance use issues would be basically unencumbered by the consequences of criminal charges, so they would be free to reach out for help, to seek treatment,” she said, adding a criminal record could prevent them from seeking employment opportunities after they leave treatment as well.

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Years of policies criminalizing use and possession hadn’t stopped drug use, she told Global News. In fact, it was preventing many people who use drugs from receiving help and contributing to the overdoses.

Decriminalizing drugs, she said, could help make the supply safer since people who take drugs won’t face as much stigma and would be able to get their drugs checked for potency and safety — ensuring no toxic substances are included.

The SPS report found 80 per cent of people who died in the city in 2021 from overdoses did not have any interaction with police.

Kayla DeMong, the executive director of Prairie Harm Reduction (PHR), one of two supervised consumption sites in the province, said she welcomes the discussion.

“Removing this idea that personal use equals criminal charges, I think it’s one step closer to actually looking at substance use disorder as a health issue rather than a justice issue,” she said.

She told Global News decriminalizing drugs could help end the cycle that keeps PHR’s clients using.

“It’s further stigmatizing and traumatizing to enter into our justice system if they end up in jail. There’s all sorts of traumas that can be instilled with that,” she said.

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Fornssler, who said she supports decriminalization, also said it works best when part of a multi-pronged approach designed to help stabilize drug users including safe supply, treatment and housing.

“When someone is without housing, it’s more likely that they’ll use a stimulant to stay awake at night so that they can guard their personal security,” she said.

The SPS report recommends the board receive the information.

Fornssler said the meeting on Thursday could just be a first step, depending on whether the board, or city council, chooses to continue investigating the policy.

Decriminalizing drugs in the city would require the federal government agreeing to do so, which she said could take years.

Click to play video: 'Rising drug problem in smaller Saskatchewan communities'

Rising drug problem in smaller Saskatchewan communities

Rising drug problem in smaller Saskatchewan communities – Jan 15, 2022

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