Morberg House clients, staff say more long-term help needed for drug decriminalization to work in Winnipeg

Some advocates and people living with addictions say more long-term programs need to start up in Winnipeg before the federal government decriminalizes possession of small amounts of drugs.

City council debating whether it will ask for Ottawa to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs

Damien Chopek says he hopes to stay at Morgerg House rather than going to jail or charges including drug possession. He says going back to jail doesn't help with his drug addiction. (Sam Samson/CBC)

Damien Chopek doesn't want to go back to prison.

"It doesn't give you the chance to deal with the drug addiction," he says.

Chopek, a 30-year-old Winnipegger, is on bail for several charges, including assault and drug possession. He has been staying at Morberg House in St. Boniface, which has a long-term program that helps men address addictions and mental health issues by facing their traumatic pasts.

Chopek hopes to stay at Moberg House on a conditional sentence. He's been sober for a few months, and worries jail would set him back to square one.

"You meet new people to score drugs from. You meet people to do crimes with. Then when you get out, you just keep doing the same thing. Whereas if they did send people to programs and treatment centres, it would actually be helping people."

On Thursday, Winnipeg city council will decide whether to ask the city's chief administrative officer to explore requesting an exemption from parts of Canada's Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs within city limits.

Douglas Reesby is serving a conditional sentence order at Morberg House. He says the months-long support is making a big difference in his addictions recovery. (Sam Samson/CBC)

The request would be similar to the requests made by other cities, like Vancouver and Toronto.

In Vancouver, the change would mean a person who's found with small amounts of illegal drugs like methamphetamine or cocaine wouldn't immediately be charged. Instead, that person would have the option to surrender the drugs and connect with health services.

But one advocate for people who use drugs says Winnipeg needs more resources before that could happen here.

"I am fully supportive of decriminalizing. However, in Manitoba, it might be a case of be careful what you wish for because you might get it," said Marion Willis, founder and executive director of Morberg House and St. Boniface Street Links.

There aren't enough long-term recovery programs available in Winnipeg, Willis said. Most are around 28 days long, which is not long enough to kick an addiction that's been years in the making, she said.

What's needed, in her view, are more programs like hers that offer years of support, rooted in mental health healing.

"There has to be the investment to build the infrastructure, to support a successful transition," she said.

"Long-term recovery program is always going to be a better choice than incarceration. Always. Unless the person is a danger to the public, then this is always going to be the better choice.

"There's not enough infrastructure right now in Winnipeg to make sure that the people who instead of going to jail would go to rehabilitation — where are we sending them?"

Douglas Reesby has been at Morberg House for seven months, serving a conditional sentence.

The Winnipegger has a criminal record and lives with addictions. He's been to other recovery programs, but having continuing support for many months — and help addressing his childhood trauma — is making a big difference.

"It's not a quick fix. It took a long time to get to this point in my life, and it's not going to go away overnight."

Larry McKay says he's been in and out of jail for more than a decade. He says he committed most of his crimes while drunk or high, and treatment may help prevent more. (Sam Samson/CBC)

Some city councillors have been vocal about their concerns about decriminalization, including Coun. Kevin Klein (Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood), who has said the request would be out of the realm of what council is supposed to do.

When asked if he would support the change, Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen responded in an email, writing "the act of decriminalizing small amounts of drugs would require federal legislation, not provincial or municipal. If federal legislation is proposed, our government would then review all implications of the changes."

Larry McKay, 35, supports more long-term programming in the province.. The Norway House man has been fighting his addictions for years, and they've landed him in jail several times, he said.

"I used to just call that my second home," he said.

McKay has been at Morberg House for almost two weeks. He said he's been convicted of assaults and robberies.

While he said he's never gone to jail for drug possession, McKay said he committed most of his crimes while drunk or high.

McKay said he understands if people are skeptical of the idea of decriminalizing drugs. But while he's still in his early days of sobriety, he's noticing a difference.

"I'm a lot more focused. I'm getting my mind straight," he said.

"I'm coming back to me. Sober me."

Morberg House clients, staff say more long-term help needed for drug decriminalization to work in Winnipeg

9 months ago
Duration 2:39
A split city council has decided not to ask Ottawa to decriminalize small amounts of drugs in Winnipeg and that will directly affect people who are working to kick their addictions.


Sam Samson


Sam Samson is a senior reporter for CBC News, based in Regina. She's a multimedia journalist who has also worked for CBC in Winnipeg and Sudbury. You can get in touch on Twitter @CBCSamSamson or email