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No to decriminalization, at least right now, say Alberta’s Chiefs of Police

The Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police (AACP) is weighing in on the issue of decriminalization of drugs, and the answer, at least for now is a hard no.

Advancing a decriminalization strategy for the province would be “incredibly premature,” said the association in a statement sent to the media prior to a Wednesday afternoon press conference on the topic.

AACP said it basing its position as a result of a report commissioned by the association from Community Safety Knowledge Alliance researchers Dr. Janos Botschner, Dr. Julian M. Somers, and Cal Corley.

A position summed up by Dr. Somers in stating that police can no longer maintain order by doing less, it’s up to the other social service sectors to do more.

“That’s our only play here. We must respond to homelessness, untreated mental illness, lack of employment opportunities, lack of supports to move forward in life,” Dr. Somers said.

AACP president and Calgary Police Service Chief Constable Mark Neufeld said that the report provided them with the evidence to take the stance towards decriminalization that they announced on Wednesday.

“What’s most clear, though, is an urgent need for a systemic and coordinated approach. There are no magic solutions, and there are no simple singular standalone tactics that are meant to solve this problem, and that includes decriminalization,” Chief Neufeld said.

He said that while decriminalization could in the future prove to be a part of a larger set of policy solutions, as a solitary solution it failed to address the delicate balance between meeting the needs of individuals who are struggling, and the communities that drug use is taking place in.

“The time has come to respond to not just the immediate individual impacts of a complex problem—addiction—but also to keep top of mind the impacts on families, communities, and society more broadly,” Chief Neufeld said.

The report released by CSKA said that a review of academic literature shows that decriminalization has the potential for positive outcomes, but only within a system that also provides resources for recovery from addiction.

Among the jurisdictions that have attempted decriminalization, it highlights the outcomes from Portugal, which sought to decriminalize drugs as a way of shifting accountability around drug use from the criminal justice system in that country, to that of a public health context.

Dr. Botschner said that report focuses on solutions such as reducing the criminalization of illicit substance users through legislation, policy, processes and destigmatization that makes users vulnerable to repeated contact with the justice system.

The report also identified the issues that decriminalization aims to address, assesses the best knowledge available to alleviate harms and to establish guideposts for decriminalization within a broader whole-of-system approach to illicit drug use.

“The proposed theory of change identifies criminal justice reforms and corresponding policing practices as necessary but, in-and-ofthemselves, insufficient to achieving broad community safety and wellbeing outcomes,” wrote the report.

“With it now widely recognized that the problematic use of substances is mainly a social and health issue rather than a criminal one, a key role for the police is as partnering contributors to constructive social change within the arena of collaborative community safety and wellbeing practice.”

The position differs from other provinces, Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police

The stance taken by the AACP differs from that of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, favoring decriminalization.

Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer, as head of that organization, called for the decriminalization of simple possession of illicit substances, in 2020. That organization viewed decriminalization as a large set of different policies that could be implemented as non-criminal responses, such as fines and warnings.

“Arresting individuals for simple possession of illicit drugs has proven to be ineffective, it does not save lives,” he said.

B.C. was granted an exception to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act on a temporary basis, for small amounts of drugs in possession of individuals, and not for sale.

That decision, which has been controversial among critics of the Liberal Party since it was announced last year, has only been in effect for 22 days. Evidence towards its efficacy, or lack thereof, has not yet been gathered.

The Liberal Party has also introduced legislation under Bill C-22 to remove mandatory minimum penalties under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, with the goal of allowing judges to consider outcomes other than imprisonment for some drug-related offences.

Within Calgary, the number of charges laid each year for possession have ranged from a high of 1,164 in 2014, to a low of 771 in 2021.

Prior to the legalization of cannabis in Canada, that category of possession made up the majority of charges laid from 2011 to 2018. From 2019 onward, possession of methamphetamine has been the largest category of charges laid under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

Chief Neufeld said there’s little desire to lay possession-only charges in the city. The vast majority are charges laid in conjunction with other more serious crimes.

“The idea behind that is that that’s an indicator to the courts and to the prosecution service, that that problematic substance use is a driver of the crimes,” he said.

Dr. Somers said that their analysis of the B.C. justice system showed that of the 70,000 sentences that they looked at from about 15,000 offenders with opioid addiction, only a very small fraction of those sentences at about 3.8 per cent involved simple possession.

“The majority, more than 50 per cent, involve theft, because that’s how they survive. They’re unemployed people, just as are the majority of people who experience poisonings, whether it’s in BC, Alberta and other jurisdictions… they’re also conspicuously people diagnosed with serious mental illnesses and who are living rough,” Dr. Somers said.

Chief Neufeld was more positive about the potential for lessons from the B.C. program than Edmonton Police Chief Dale McFee.

“The results will show up in a few years, But the B.C. approach—not to criticize BC because they’re obviously trying whatever they can to help people survive and thrive—but those approaches aren’t many,” he said.

Chief Neufeld said that he hoped that in return, B.C. and other provinces would be looking at Alberta to see what the recovery-oriented care approach was doing, and in turn take those outcomes into their own approaches.

Non-political, but aligned with Alberta government on recovery-oriented care

Chief McFee said that the association was speaking out against decriminalization as a tactic for dealing with substance abuse. It comes from a desire to no longer "move people down the road and solve nothing."

"It goes back to the social licence that this just isn't OK to just be able to do your drugs anywhere, and that other people's freedoms, such as business, such as families, such as others, have no say in the matter," he said.

"We're not saying the solution isn't multi-dimensional, because we believe it is. But the current status quo and just moving it down the street is not solving anything, and that's what we have to change."

He said that in his years of public service, including that of Deputy Minister of Corrections and Policing in the Ministry of Justice for Saskatchewan, he had never seen more government ministers come together on a single issue.

"The reality is, quite frankly, I don't really care who's leading it right now—they're leading it, and this should resonate with both parties," Chief McFee said.

"If anybody thinks that we have a system right now that's currently working, I think needs to look in the mirror because we're investing billions right now, seven and a half billion exactly every year in the city of Edmonton—five Dallas Cowboy football stadiums every year for eternity, and we're not getting the outcomes."

AACP paid approximately $30,000 and $40,000 for the report. Chief Dale McFee serves as the chairperson and president of the Community Safety Knowledge Alliance, in addition to serving on the AACP.

The Calgary Police Service, along with the Delta Police Department, Edmonton Police Service, Greater Sudbury Police Service, Peel Regional Police Service, Regina Police Service, and Victoria Police Department are members of the CSKA.

Chief McFee defended the report, saying that it was independently reviewed by a panel of experts including Dr. Onawa LaBelle, Dr. Renee Linklater, Dr. Amy Porath, Howard Sapers, Adrian Teare, and former Manitoba Chief Justice Raymond Wyant.

"It's almost offending, that people aren't actually looking at the content... if we're not trying to make ourselves better through evidence, I think we've lost the question here," said Chief McFee.