Drug decriminalization again up for dialogue in Saskatoon

Drug decriminalization — allowing adults to possess small amounts of some illegal drugs for personal use without criminal consequence — will be back up for discussion Wednesday afternoon in Saskatoon.

In April, the Saskatoon board of police commissioners reviewed reports on decriminalization and decided to push the matter forward to a special joint meeting with the city’s governance and priorities committee happening Wednesday at 1 p.m. CST.

One report, which said decriminalization would benefit people who use drugs and society as a whole, was submitted to the board of police commissioners in April. It was authored by University of Saskatchewan researchers Lori Hanson and Barbara Fornssler.

Other jurisdictions across Canada have looked to decriminalization as one response to climbing drug-related deaths, overdoses and overall drug use.

The decriminalization of simple possession is one tool that can stabilize or reduce the harm for people living with addictions, the Saskatoon researchers wrote. 

“Evidence suggests that these direct and indirect effects of [decriminalization of personal possession of substances] may effectively reduce drug toxicity deaths by reducing exposure to a toxic and unregulated drug supply,” the report says. 

The researchers said benefits include increased access to harm reduction services that can lessen disease transmission, better relationships with police, less work for police, and lower costs for the health and legal systems. 

City should strive for decriminalization: report

The report recommends the city and police strive to make Saskatoon a place where simple drug possession is decriminalized —  making it the first Canadian Prairie city to do so. This would require an exemption from Health Canada.

Until then, they suggested the city could have law enforcement officers refrain from imposing criminal charges on people found with a personal amount of an illegal substance.

They also warned there are consequences to sticking with the status quo.

“Although pursuing a no-change option does not preclude change on the other elements of the stabilization model, the current rates — of opioid poisoning deaths, HIV/AIDS in Saskatoon, incarceration rates, or disparities experienced by BIPOC in the city — may worsen.”

They encouraged the formation of a multi-agency group to tackle harm reduction and drug toxicity in the city, with decriminalization as one tool. 

A report from Saskatoon Police Chief Troy Cooper that includes localized statistics is also included in the agenda for Wednesday. 

It, too, was put forward to the board of police commissioners in April. It concluded that the evaluation of evidence-based harm reduction strategies is best accomplished through post secondary-based research proposals, and recommended the board consider the research report.

Sask. government not supportive of policy

Last month, the federal government and B.C. government made a joint announcement — the first of its kind in Canada — saying Canadians 18 and older will be able to possess up to a cumulative 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA within British Columbia.

The exemption will operate as a three-year pilot project and means there will be no arrests, charges or seizures for personal possession at or below the 2.5-gram threshold.

The Saskatchewan government said earlier this month that it would not pursue a similar policy. 

Hanson and Fornssler wrote in their report that “global evidence base clearly shows that drug prohibition does not reduce drug use, and decriminalization does not increase drug use.”

They also found that “countries pursuing punitive policies experience the highest rates of drug-related deaths.”

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