The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) is calling to decriminalize the possession of illicit drugs for personal use, according to an announcement from CACP President and Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer.
Palmer said the CACP created a special purpose committee in 2018 to study the decriminalization of illegal drugs and its impact on public safety and policing after a significant increase in drug overdoses. In 2019, the association also gave members of their Executive Global Studies Program the task of researching decriminalization and how police can impact public policy changes, leading participants to travel abroad to learn about different countries’ approaches in addressing issues related to illicit drugs. The work of the committee and the global studies group made it clear that arresting people for simple possession of drugs is ineffective and does not save lives, Palmer said.
“We are here today to officially state that the CACP recognizes substance use and addiction as a public health issue,” Palmer said in a news conference. “Being addicted to a controlled substance is not a crime and should not be treated as such.”
The CACP is pushing for a health-based model, so instead of police recommending or laying criminal charges, they would work with community partners to make sure drug users are given proper, timely access to health, social and treatment services. The change would allow law enforcement agencies to focus on drug trafficking, production and importation, Palmer said, while shifting the role of frontline police officers to harm reduction when they interact with people that have addiction or mental health issues.
The CACP is also calling for the formation of a national task force to research drug policy reform. The association is recommending that the task force include Public Safety Canada, the Department of Justice, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, Health Canada, CACP representatives and other subject matter experts.
“[Decriminalization] can involve noncriminal responses such as fines and warnings for designated activities such as the possession of small quantities of a controlled substance, but most importantly, it can involve a healthcare approach that diverts people from the criminal justice system,” Palmer said. “Decriminalization is not a simple, singular approach. It encompasses a spectrum of principles, policies and practices that can be combined and implemented in various ways to respond to particular issues and to address specific objectives.”
Palmer noted that there are jurisdictions in Canada where elements of decriminalization are already in use, such as supervised drug consumption sites in Vancouver and Toronto. Supervised consumption sites allow for the use of drugs in a safe, controlled setting with medical attention and other supports available onsite.
The CACP recommends that the sites involve consultations with local police and public health partners to ensure the “smooth integration of services.” People across Canada used to think they were crazy in Vancouver for opening their first safe consumption site in 2003, Palmer said, but over time, many Canadians started to realize the old way of doing things wasn’t working.
“The bottom line is that addiction issues should best be handled through a healthcare system and not through a criminal justice system,” he said.
Palmer stated he’s been considering decriminalization for over ten years since around 2007 when he realized that low level enforcement wasn’t helping opioid and overdose issues. Abbotsford Police Chief Mike Serr, who serves as co-chair of the CACP Special Purpose Committee on the Decriminalization of Illicit Drugs as well as the CACP Drug Advisory Committee, said he’s also questioned the practice of laying simple possession charges for many years.
Serr described walking his beat down Hastings Street in 1994 and seeing a sex trade worker who he’d encountered many times about to shoot heroin. He didn’t lay any charges but took away her drugs, he said, and he’ll never forget that moment as the moment when he knew that this person was going to be revictimized because she didn’t get the help that she needed. Even back then, he felt there had to be a better way.
“The healthcare model is a model that we have to fully endorse and support,” Serr said. “For me, it was a very real moment that I remember almost 26 years ago that really has stuck with me my entire career that I revictimized a person who really at that point needed nothing more than help and support.”
For more information on the recommendations of the CACP, visit their website.