Edmonton councillor wants city to look at decriminalizing drug possession

An Edmonton city councillor wants to ask the municipal administration to explore decriminalizing personal drug possession, following Toronto’s lead.

Last month, the Toronto Board of Health — a municipal body that directs and oversees public health in the Ontario city — voted to ask the federal government to allow the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of illegal drugs.

Ward papastew Coun. Michael Janz intends to introduce a motion Monday that would have the City of Edmonton prepare a report, detailing what would be required to seek an exemption from part of the federal Controlled Substances Act.

“We need to move away from this American-style, Ronald-Reagan-war-on-drugs approach that has clearly failed,” Janz said.

The report would only be a first step, he said. Moving forward with decriminalization would require discussion among city groups to ensure it’s a health-focused approach tailored to Edmonton.

Data from the Alberta’s substance use surveillance system shows 2021 was the deadliest year for fatal drug poisonings on record. There were 1,372 recorded deaths through October — the most recent data available.

Criminalization, however, does not address the root causes of the problem, Janz said. Instead it traps users within the justice system and keeps them from accessing treatment or safe supply.

“These are entirely preventable deaths,” Janz said. “This is a public policy failure.”

When asked about the motion Wednesday, Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said it is a necessary conversation given the drug poisoning crisis.

“We need to explore all the tools that are available in our tool kits,” he said.

Alberta police chiefs against decriminalization for now

The Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police, made up of senior police and public safety officials, is against decriminalization, saying Thursday that more work needs to be done before reaching that point.

That position is unanimous among members, said Edmonton police Chief Dale McFee.

Without additional measures in place, decriminalization would create more disorder, said Mark Neufeld, president of the Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police and chief constable of the Calgary Police Service. (Mike Symington/CBC)

Any move toward decriminalization would require all three levels of government to discuss gaps, including administrative sanctions, said Mark Neufeld, the association’s president and chief constable for the Calgary Police Service, during a media briefing.

“Drug decriminalization triggers an immediate need for structural and societal changes in areas that do not currently exist,” he said.

The association also claims that decriminalization is effectively already in place in Alberta, as charges are usually only laid when there’s a larger public safety concern or some other criminality.

That kind of discretionary enforcement, however, often results in disproportionate amounts of marginalized people being arrested, said Petra Schulz, co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm, a network of Canadian families impacted by substance-use-related harms and deaths.

Indigenous people are overrepresented in drug poisoning deaths and within the criminal justice system.

More supports are necessary, Schulz said. But those can come hand-in-hand with decriminalization, which she predicts would see resources reallocated from enforcement to health services.

Decriminalization could also save lives simply by reducing the stigma attached to drug use, she added.

“It’s really hard to seek help for something that is criminalized.”

Channeling resources, that are already available, to keep people with addictions out of the justice system and help them get treatment is the key thing missing when addressing the city’s drug crisis, McFee said.

Municipal movement

Criminalization of drug use has far-reaching consequences and research suggests it doesn’t work, said Elaine Hyshka, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta’s school of public health and expert on the opioid epidemic.

“Not only does it saddle people with a criminal record, but then [that] stays with them for the rest of their lives and impacts their employment and impacts their ability to travel,” she said.

Hyshka believes municipal governments are starting to recognize criminalization has not resulted in less substance use nor fewer overdoses.

The motion Janz plans to bring before city council next week could signal a shift toward a better system in Edmonton, she said.

“There is potential to really benefit the community and to stop wasting public dollars on something that we know is not only ineffective, but harmful.”

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