Manitoba

2 Winnipeg city councillors want small amounts of illegal drugs decriminalized

A motion from city Couns. Sherri Rollins and Markus Chambers calls for the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs for personal use to be decriminalized within Winnipeg city limits.

Motion seeks to address racial issues in arrests, make harm reduction easier to access

Coun. Sherri Rollins (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry) and Coun. Markus Chambers (St. Norbert–Seine River) want to see the City of Winnipeg work with the federal government to decriminalize small amounts of illegal drugs in the city. (Sam Samson/CBC)

Two Winnipeg city councillors hope they can start the long process of decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs in city limits.

"I think it's a really important piece to the harm reduction regime of the city that we don't have right now," Coun. Sherri Rollins told reporters.

A notice of motion at city council on Thursday says Rollins (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry) and Coun. Markus Chambers (St. Norbert-Seine River) have asked the city's chief administrative officer to work with the federal government to start the process of exploring decriminalization.

If that were to happen, anyone in Winnipeg found with a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use would not face criminal legal repercussions.

Cities like Vancouver, Toronto and Edmonton are already exploring similar decriminalization proposals for drugs like opioids. 

Rollins said she believes all drugs under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act should be included in Winnipeg's plan. There are no details in the notice of motion as to what constitutes a "small amount" of drugs.

The motion states racial bias in police investigations and prosecution of drug crimes result in the over-representation of Black and Indigenous people in arrests and convictions.

It also says people who face legal consequences for having small amounts of drugs have difficulty accessing harm reduction services.

"Time and time again, it is Indigenous and Black people that are disproportionately impacted by this small criminalization of drugs and possession," said Rollins.

Chambers, who is the deputy mayor and chair of the Winnipeg Police Board, said he has spoken with Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth about the issue.

"This is something that has been discussed with the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, with the recognition that it is more of a health crisis than a criminal issue," he said.

But police aren't actually targeting people who have a small amount of drugs, he said.

"It's usually a situation where it's in combination of other charges," Chambers told reporters.

Rollins said the move would have to be coupled with better access to harm reduction services, like the creation of a safe consumption site.

Chambers said he has a meeting in February with Sarah Guillemard, Manitoba's new minister for mental health and community wellness. He plans to discuss the idea, as well as mental health and addictions issues.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman says he'll have to do more research on the idea of decriminalizing small amounts of drugs in Winnipeg. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Mayor Brian Bowman didn't immediately sign on to the proposal. He told reporters Thursday that he doesn't yet know how he would vote, and said he will need to hear different opinions before he makes up his mind.

"I would obviously welcome the input from law enforcement, from members of the legal community who are part of administering the Criminal Code … [and] those with lived experience, as well as third parties who provide support to those that suffer from addictions."

Councillors will discuss the issue during February's city council meeting.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sam Samson

Journalist

Sam Samson is a multimedia journalist who has worked for CBC in Manitoba and Ontario as a reporter and associate producer. Before working for CBC, she studied journalism and communications in Winnipeg. You can get in touch on Twitter @CBCSamSamson or email samantha.samson@cbc.ca.

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