Manitoba

Council won't ask Ottawa to decriminalize small amounts of drugs in Winnipeg city limits

Winnipeg's city council will not ask the federal government to decriminalize small amounts of illegal drugs within city limits.

Vote ended up tied, with councillors split on whether decriminalization is municipal issue

Winnipeg city council, pictured in 2019, did not vote in favour of asking the federal government for an exemption under Canada's drug control act that would have decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs in city limits. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Winnipeg city council will not ask the federal government to decriminalize small amounts of illegal drugs within city limits, after a tie vote on the issue Thursday.

The tie meant the motion was not carried.

The proposal from Couns. Sherri Rollins (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry) and Markus Chambers (St. Nortbert-Seine River) would have had the city's chief administrative officer contact Ottawa and work on decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs within city limits.

The change would have meant people caught with small amounts of illegal drugs would be offered access to addictions help rather than being charged.

Couns. Matt Allard (St. Boniface), Ross Eadie (Mynarski), Cindy Gilroy (Daniel McIntrye), John Orlikow (River Heights), Vivian Santos (Point Douglas) and Jason Schreyer (Elmwood-East Kildonan) joined Rollins and Chambers in voting in favour of the motion.

The votes against were cast by Couns. Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan), Scott Gillingham (St. James), Kevin Klein (Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood), Brian Mayes (St. Vital), Shawn Nason (Transcona), Janice Lukes (Waverley West) and Devi Sharma (Old Kildonan), along with Mayor Brian Bowman.

While several councillors said they supported the idea of ensuring those with addictions could get help rather than jail time, they raised concerns that the motion needed more political support than city council could give.

"The province must take the lead on this," said Lukes.

"Without a doubt, the city can support and play a role. I think we all know the status quo is not acceptable, but this is not a municipal issue."

Bowman said he spent some time consulting health-care workers and harm reduction advocates about the issue after it was brought up last month. He and many councillors raised concerns that there aren't enough of the long-term recovery programs that would be needed for those who choose help.

A cohesive effort is needed between the city, provincial and federal governments, he said.

"I'm not sure why the federal government doesn't — if this is the direction they want to go — just change the rules at a national level," he said.

"I think we all know there's not alignment between our provincial government and our federal government on this topic."

While he said "debate is warranted" on the topic and council "should be open to this," Bowman said he was not prepared to support the motion right now.

Browaty had a more passionate response.

"What kind of message are we sending to children and their parents? We're talking about addictive, life-destroying, illicit drugs. Hey kids, want a small amount of heroin? Sure. Knock yourself out. Crystal meth? No problem."

Councillors urged to 'think outside the box'

Rollins, who put forward the motion, addressed concerns about involvement from other levels of government by framing the decision as the first step.

"It's important sometimes to be a first mover in relationships with other levels of government, because that's what people rely on us to do," she said.

"In this case, I worry … that no one is coming to help Winnipeg unless we stick our hand up."

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

Chambers, who seconded the motion, insisted it was worth council's time.

"Our … first responders are dealing with this. Our 911 call operators are dealing with this on a daily basis. It is having an impact on municipal resources," he said.

While that's part of the reason for the motion, he said, it was also needed to help create "a better outcome for these individuals who are utilizing these illicit drugs as a coping mechanism for their daily ills."

"If we think outside the box … I'm certain it would provide a better outcome for individuals who do want to get off these drugs and turn their lives around."

Chambers also suggested the motion would allow a first step toward the "right calls for service," and ensuring people in crisis get a health response, not just a police response.

Orlikow and other councillors brought up council's past support for the Bruce Oake Recovery Centre. Orlikow said that was a good start, but that council needed to work on decriminalizing drugs to truly show support for people who live with addictions.

"We need to move forward on … many different levels, because the situation is so dire in Winnipeg," he said.

"It's holding back Winnipeg's growth. It's holding back families' growth. People are dying."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sam Samson

Journalist

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 samantha.samson@cbc.ca.

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