This police chief is open to talking about decriminalizing drugs

With no end in sight to a years-long drug crisis, Calgary police Chief Roger Chaffin tells CBC News he's open to exploring the idea of decriminalizing small-scale drug possession for users — a position he says would have been unthinkable when he joined the police service.

Must clear major obstacles before Canada considers decriminalization, chief says

Calgary police Chief Roger Chaffin tells CBC News he's open to exploring the idea of decriminalizing small-scale drug possession for users — a position that would have been unthinkable when he joined the police service in 1986 — but he says major obstacles must be cleared first. (CBC)

With no end in sight to a years-long drug crisis, Calgary police Chief Roger Chaffin says he's become increasingly convinced that arresting drug users likely makes their problems worse.

Chaffin tells CBC News he's open to exploring the idea of decriminalizing small-scale drug possession for users — a position that would have been unthinkable when he joined the police service in 1986 — but he says major obstacles must be cleared first.

If you ever have an opportunity to visit the drug treatment facilities, and look at the families that are really burdened or struggling with how drugs have destroyed their lives, you'll think differently about what the solutions look like.- Calgary police Chief Roger Chaffin

Governments, he says, must recognize the need for expanded social spending on priorities like addictions treatment and mental health support, while having a national conversation about whether Canadians support a shift in thinking about justice for drug users.

As chief, Chaffin says he's taken a broader view of Calgary's drug problem and what needs to be done to rein it in.

"If you ever have an opportunity to visit the drug treatment facilities, and look at the families that are really burdened or struggling with how drugs have destroyed their lives, you'll think differently about what the solutions look like," he says.

"The real call for us, rather than just to say decriminalization, is we need better tools. We need better community supports to deal with these problems.

"And then we can likely have a more mature discussion about what should be a crime and what isn't a crime."

Portugal made radical drug policy famous

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government faces increasing pressure — including from within the Liberal Party itself — to scrap criminal charges for drug users caught with small quantities.

Under a harm reduction model made famous in Portugal, these users would be diverted to treatment or maybe hit with a fine or community service instead of going to jail.

The Portuguese model — which also features greater spending on prevention, treatment, harm reduction and other social programs — has been linked to a dramatic slide in the number of overdose deaths and HIV diagnoses among drug users.

A major philosophy behind this sweeping reform is that addiction is a health condition, not a crime.

Arrests likely make it 'a little bit worse': Chaffin

Chaffin says he's sympathetic to this view.

"The arrest is likely a feature of toxic stress for these people that adds to more complexity for their addiction," he says. "It's probably not supporting or helping them; it's actually probably making it a little bit worse for them.

If there is a willingness at a community level to invest in a healthier life, the justice system wouldn't have to arrest its way through all those problems.- Chaffin

"We do know that if there is a willingness at a community level to invest in a healthier life, the justice system wouldn't have to arrest its way through all those problems."

Chaffin's comments come as the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police is exploring the potential impacts that decriminalizing or legalizing drugs could have on policing.

A special committee has been charged with developing a position statement for the national group, and is expected to file its report by August 2019.

Momentum builds to decriminalize

After federal Liberals endorsed decriminalization at their recent policy convention, Trudeau said the major change is "not part of our plans" as Ottawa remains focused on legalizing pot.

Still, momentum appears to be building in favour of reform at home and abroad.

Although Portugal is widely regarded as ground zero for decriminalization, dozens of other countries around the world have removed criminal penalties for the personal possession of some or all drugs.

The United Nations, the World Health Organization and other authorities, including the Canadian Mental Health Association, have joined a chorus calling for the repeal of "punitive laws" affecting drug users.

Here's what Portugal does that's so different

In Portugal, drug trafficking remains a crime, but anyone caught with small quantities of drugs — equivalent to less than 10 days of consumption — is called before a panel.

Specialists assess each case to decide whether they recommend treatment, impose community service or a fine, or simply close the file.

A resident at a Portuguese drug treatment centre picks up his lunch in this 2010 photo. Portugal was once ridden with a heroin epidemic, but has seen a dramatic slide in the number of overdose deaths and HIV diagnoses. (The Associated Press)

Politicians and addictions agencies in Canada have taken a closer look at the Portuguese model as the country deals with an opioid overdose epidemic that kills thousands of Canadians each year.

In Calgary, police have been grappling with a spike in property and violent crimes in recent years, which Chaffin links to economic unrest and an influx of dangerous drugs, like crystal meth and fentanyl.

Police arrest data shows that users who were charged with possession of drugs other than cannabis from 2010 to 2017 were also accused of other crimes. About 80 per cent of them were accused in at least one property crime, such as car prowlings, while slightly more than half were allegedly involved in violent crime.

New approach might cut some crimes: Chaffin

Chaffin believes these crimes would become less of a problem if the justice and health care systems took a new approach to dealing with drug use.

"Without having to build more jails or hire more police, you could simply manage this as a health issue for the community and see that public safety issues drop with it," he says.

At the treatment centre, that's really where I discovered if I didn't do drugs, I wouldn't have some of these other problems," including a life of crime.- Clay, a reformed drug user

Clay, a reformed drug user who spoke on condition that CBC didn't use his surname, says he was in an Ontario jail when he decided to leave his life of drugs and crime behind.

In an interview outside a Calgary restaurant, Clay says he can't remember what he was in jail for at the time — that period of his life was a blur of robberies, stolen cars and police chases.

He went into treatment after learning he could be eligible for early parole.

"At the treatment centre, that's really where I discovered if I didn't do drugs, I wouldn't have some of these other problems," including his life of crime, he says. "It was hard, but it was simple. I had to walk away from everyone I knew and pursue a new direction."

Dawn, who ended up on the street before she kicked her drug addiction, says she's torn about whether decriminalization would help address Calgary's drug problem. She says users shouldn't be thrown in jail for carrying a personal stash, but she fears that changing the laws could normalize drug use, and that governments would not adequately fund treatment.

"I worry that things are going to get worse," says Dawn, who also didn't want to be identified by her full name. She's been clean for 25 years.

Portugal's drug czar sees parallels with Canada

Dr. Joao Goulao, the architect of Portugal's drug policy reforms that ushered in decriminalization in 2001, says he sees parallels between Canada's current drug crisis and the epidemic in Portugal during the 1990s, when an estimated 100,000 people were believed to be addicted to heroin.

"This trend of decriminalizing drug use and considering it mostly as a health issue, I think can benefit every country," Goulao tells CBC News. "Putting someone in jail [for using drugs] does not benefit anyone. Usually, they come out worse than when they go in."

Dr. Joao Goulao (shown in a 2010 photo) is the architect of Portugal's drug policy reforms that ushered in decriminalization in 2001. He says he sees parallels between Canada's current drug crisis and the epidemic in Portugal during the 1990s. (EMCDDA / Flickr)

Goulão says decriminalization was an important peg of the reforms, but "not the most important."

"I believe the most important thing was to offer treatment to all those who needed it, [making it] easily available, free of charge with no constraints, no waiting lists," he says.

Putting someone in jail [for using drugs] does not benefit anyone. Usually, they come out worse than when they go in.- Dr. Joao Goulao

Changing the laws, he says, helped to encourage a shift in public thinking about drug use, from something to be ashamed of to a disease that people suffer from "with the same dignity as the people who suffer from other diseases, such as diabetes."

Still, the health and justice reforms weren't enough to prevent waves of drug use linked to wider economic factors, such as the 2008 financial crisis, which resulted in austerity measures that cut spending on addictions programs.

You can't expect, when a drug reform comes in, that you will only ever see the data get better.- Steve  Rolles  of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation

"You can't expect, when a drug reform comes in, that you will only ever see the data get better," says Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst at the U.K.-based Transform Drug Policy Foundation, a think-tank in favour of decriminalization.

"There are other external variables that may occasionally come along and push things in the wrong direction," says Rolles, who has appeared before Canadian Senate and parliamentary committees on legalizing pot.

"Overall, I think most objective analyses [show] that Portugal's approach has been, broadly speaking, very successful. I think that's why it's informed so many other reforms around Europe and the rest of the world and, hopefully soon, Canada, too."

Don't rush into decriminalization, Chaffin warns

Back in Calgary, Chaffin says it would be a mistake to rush into decriminalizing drugs in the same way he believes Canada legalized cannabis too quickly, without first resolving critical questions, such as how to deal with impaired drivers.

In the interim, the chief believes prohibition remains "one of our best viable opportunities" for officers to come into contact with users and "potentially get them the help they need."

Current drug laws "allow us to open some doors to understand what the person's going through, what avenues of support are out there in the community."- Chaffin

"Those authorities to arrest, those authorities to interview, those authorities to understand or investigate what's going around that person are very important….

"It does allow us to open some doors to understand what the person's going through, what avenues of support are out there in the community," he says. "It gives us a legitimate reason to have that conversation with somebody and, where appropriate, to arrest them."

Still, he says, "the justice system is really bogged down … and there is a strong recognition that's probably not the best public entity to deal with things like addictions...

"We want to make sure we're not criminalizing addictions."

  • Watch the full, raw interview with Calgary police Chief Roger Chaffin right here.
RAW INTERVIEW: Calgary's top cop on drug decriminalization 18:18


About the Author

Reid Southwick

Reporter

Reid Southwick spent 10 years in newspapers reporting in New Brunswick and Alberta before joining CBC in late 2017. In Calgary, he has covered business news, crime and Alberta's fentanyl crisis. Get in touch with Reid by email at reid.southwick@cbc.ca or on Twitter @ReidSouthwick.