Decriminalizing drugs 'worthy of dialogue' WRPS Chief Bryan Larkin says

Waterloo Regional Police Services Chief Bryan Larkin says there's a need for evidence-based research and a dialogue about how to address the drug crisis in Waterloo region and across the country and that includes talking about decriminalizing drugs.

'Let’s take baby steps. Let’s do the evidence-based research,' Chief Larkin says

WRPS Chief Bryan Larkin stands beside a table with cash and drugs after a significant seizure through an investigation dubbed Project Variance. He said the force is focusing on drug manufacturers and traffickers, not the users. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

It may be time to have a national conversation about decriminalizing drugs in Canada, Waterloo Regional Police Services Chief Bryan Larkin says.

The opioid crisis has gripped Waterloo region, with opioid overdoses killing 85 people in 2017, Larkin said.

It's a problem across the province and Canada, and Larkin is part of a national working group with the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police that discusses how drugs are impacting large cities and small towns.

Larkin said many communities are struggling with the complexity of the issue

"I don't think the answer is as easy as, 'Well, people should say no. They shouldn't use,'" Larkin said.

When it comes to decriminalizing drugs, Larkin said, "It's worthy of dialogue."

Justice system doesn't deter drug use

Earlier this week, the Toronto board of health said it will push the federal government to treat drug use as a public health issue, rather than a criminal one by decriminalizing drugs.

In a report, Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto's medical officer of health, said there is evidence that laws that criminalize drug users result in serious health and social impacts. That includes people being discriminated against by service providers, family members and society at large.

"Having a criminal record makes it very difficult for people to find a job and a place to live. They have difficulty accessing needed harm reduction services because of fear of being found or being stopped by police," de Villa said during Monday's meeting.

"Creating an illegal drug market has resulted in stronger drugs for higher profits resulting in more poisonings, overdoses and other harms in our community."

This is suspected carfentanil seized by Waterloo regional police. More of the purple, playdough-like substance has made its way into the region. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

The Canadian Public Health Association applauded the move by Toronto board of health.

CPHA executive director Ian Culbert said in a release there is evidence being arrested and put in jail does not deter people from using illegal drugs.

"Before more lives are lost to drug use, the federal government should migrate to a public health approach to manage all psychoactive substances," Culbert said.

In April, federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said she's open to a conversation about decriminilizing small quantities of drugs, but was just focused on cannabis legislation for the time being.

'Target those who prey on the vulnerable'

In Waterloo region, police focus on the drug traffickers and manufacturers, not the users, Larkin said.

He said officers have received pushback from some people, who think they should arrest everyone including the users.

"My vision, my vision as the chief, has been let's target those who prey on the vulnerable, so traffickers, illicit traffickers," Larkin said.

"The reality is, they have a public health addiction. That is better treated by public health."

Larkin said they know the illicit drug market is a profitable one in the region. A recent drug investigation dubbed Project Variance saw the force seize the largest amount of cash and assets ever.

"We know that the drug business is profitable. We know that the traffickers, they prey and they push. This is where we've seen the whole push to opioids is the profit and the way that they can make money and provide a drug that gives an incredible high is pretty significant and the return on investment is making them lots of money," Larkin said.

In a decision made this week, the Toronto board of health will push the federal government treat drug use as a public health issue, rather than a criminal one. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Do the research

It's time to talk about options to help people, he added.

While some point to systems in Portugal where drugs have been decriminalized since 2001 and drug use has gone down, Larkin said the research needs to look at more than just the success stories

"Let's take baby steps. Let's do the evidence-based research," he said.

"There's a lot of different factors on investment, on health care, and so I think there's things we've got to look as a community, but I don't think we should bang the table and simply push out ideas or push out public policy, I think we should embrace and engage in dialogue."

He also said he believes while topics like supervised consumption sites and drug use are "polarizing" issues in Waterloo region, people seem ready to step up and figure out a solution.

"To be very clear, this is not going to be solved overnight. It's a complex issue. It's polarizing, and I think we need to continue to engage in dialogue with subject matter experts, with those that are working, those that have lived experience, to look at how do we resolve this as a community," he said.

"It's not one agency that's going to solve this. It's really a community issue."

Listen to the whole interview with WRPS Chief Bryan Larkin: