Alberta should follow B.C. in decriminalizing small amounts of drugs, advocates say

As British Columbia plans to decriminalize small amounts of drugs next January, some advocates say similar steps should be taken in Alberta.

B.C.'s decriminalization comes into effect January 2023

A discarded needle lies in a puddle on a Vancouver street. As B.C. moves to decriminalize small amounts of drugs, some advocates say Alberta should do the same. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

As B.C. plans to decriminalize small amounts of drugs next January, some advocates say similar steps should be taken in Alberta.

Dr. Monty Ghosh, assistant professor at the University of Calgary and University of Alberta, is a clinical physician who researches addiction. He said B.C.'s move to legalize the carrying of small amounts of drugs like opioids, cocaine and MDMA is "a step in the right direction."

"We know that decriminalization decreases poor health outcomes and helps support people into treatment," said Ghosh. 

He said if people are not afraid of getting arrested for drug use, they will access support and services more often. 

Dr. Monty Gosh is posing for the camera, wearing a dark sweater over a white shirt and tie with his arms crossed over his chest.
Dr. Monty Ghosh, an addictions specialist, says decriminilazing drugs would help get people into treatment. (S. Monty Ghosh)

Outgoing Alberta Premier Jason Kenney disagrees.

In a statement released Tuesday in response to B.C.'s decriminalization announcement, Kenney said this move to decriminalize will likely lead to an increase in drug addiction, violence and trafficking. 

"We'd be happy to get into a more balanced discussion with the federal government about finding real solutions and not making a bad situation worse," Kenney said in a news conference Tuesday.

Kenney's statement also claimed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during the last election that his government would not decriminalize drugs.

While Trudeau did not explicitly say in the election that the Liberals would move to decriminalize drugs, he did say in September that his government would be open to working with provinces like B.C. that are interested in some form of decriminalization. 

Creating a path for recovery

Chris Gallaway, executive director of Friends of Medicare, a non-profit based in Edmonton that defends universal public health care, agrees with Ghosh that B.C. is taking a positive step for harm reduction. 

Gallaway called Kenney's response to B.C.'s decriminalization "offensive" and "outrageous."

"It felt like the premier chose to take political cheap shots … rather than do his job," said Gallaway.

According to Gallaway, concerns of increased drug use caused by decriminalization is just an example of fearmongering.

"We know that safe consumption sites, for instance, save lives," said Gallaway. 

"There's all these kinds of myths around drug use, but really it's about removing stigma for folks who use drugs and actually creating a real path for people to be healthy, to be alive and potentially to seek recovery."

In 2021, Alberta recorded its deadliest year for drug overdoses with more than 1,700 deaths. 

"You can't recover if you're dead," Gallaway said.

Gallaway also believes drug decriminalization is quite a widely accepted idea today even if Kenney disagrees with it. 

Outgoing Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says decriminalizing small amounts of drugs will lead to an increase in drug addiction, violence and trafficking.  (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The governments of B.C, Vancouver and Toronto have all filed exemption requests to decriminalize small amounts of drugs. Friends of Medicare also supported the City of Edmonton's call to look at decriminalization.

But Gallaway said part of the struggle with provinces and cities trying to implement decriminalization is that there's still no clear process that the federal government has outlined. He said Ottawa should make that process clearer or decriminalize drugs across the country.

Models for drug decriminalization

Ghosh said there are two main models for drug decriminalization.

One is the Portugal model: in 2000, the country decriminalized small amounts of drugs. Its model involves sending people caught with small amounts of drugs to a tribunal — not the same as a criminal court — where they meet with social workers and health-care workers. These workers decide whether to hand out fines, send people to treatment programs or release individuals with no consequences.

Portugal's approach also involves resources like methadone clinics, clean needle handouts and programs that encourage small businesses to hire people in drug treatment.

Portugal's Institute for Drugs and Drug Addiction exchange used needles for new ones and try to direct drug addicts to treatment centres. Portugal decriminalized the use of all drugs in a groundbreaking law in 2000. (Armando Franca/The Associated Press)

While this model has faced criticisms, Ghosh said that since Portugal implemented it, the country has seen a large decrease in overdose numbers, as well as rates of HIV and AIDS.

The model being introduced in B.C. is different from Portugal's. People caught with small amounts of drugs will simply not be charged by police nor have to access treatment services. Ghosh said this model gives people autonomy and allows them to decide what steps to take.

While B.C.'s model has not yet been tested, Ghosh said any form of decriminalization is a good idea. Additionally, the federal government will be able to study in the coming years how effective B.C.'s decriminalization turns out. 

You can't recover if you're dead.- Chris Gallaway, Friends of Medicare

Gallaway said decriminalization is just one piece of the puzzle to help people struggling with drug use. Systemic change is also needed in the justice system, and the housing crisis is making it even more difficult for people to get back on their feet. 

"There's layers of issues," he said.

Ghosh ultimately believes drug decriminalization is in the future for Alberta, but which model the province takes is something Albertans will have to decide. 

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener and Colleen Underwood