'This is a win': Support grows for motion to decriminalize small amounts of drugs
The move would help people access treatment, prevent overdose deaths: advocates
A tall pantry at the Manitoba Harm Reduction Network's Winnipeg office is stocked — clean stems for smoking crack, unused bubble pipes for meth use, care packages with combs and toothbrushes.
Shohan Illsley hopes Winnipeg gets another harm reduction tool in the future — decriminalizing small amounts of drugs for personal use.
"We've been talking about it for years, but to have at least some level of government engaged in the conversation is definitely exciting for us," said Illsley, the network's executive director. "This is a win for people who use drugs."
Two city councillors — Sherri Rollins (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry) and Markus Chambers (St. Norbert–Seine River) — want the city's chief administrative officer to work with the federal government and start the process of exploring decriminalization in Winnipeg. This follows the lead of other Canadian cities including Toronto and Vancouver that are asking for city-wide exemptions from sections of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
In Vancouver, the idea is if police find someone who has a small amount of illegal drugs such as methamphetamine or cocaine, they wouldn't immediately be charged. Instead, that person would have the option to surrender their substances and get connected with health services.
More harm-reduction needed, advocate says
For this to work, Illsley says, people who use drugs must be included in the policy-making process. Also, Manitoba needs to set itself up with more harm-reduction services.
"It looks like things like safe-consumption services. It looks like drug-testing options, Naloxone distribution more widely available," she said. "It looks like access to harm-reduction supplies and other services that are not grounded in abstinence, but rather grounded in where people are at with their relationships with their substances at the time."
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Illsley says if people who use drugs are involved in the criminal justice system, it's harder to access help. And that help, she adds, can save lives.
"If we decriminalize, we can now potentially start advocating and providing services to help deal with the overdose crisis," she said. "This is literally just a first step to start to support our relatives who potentially can die from from toxic drug supply."
Staff at Main Street Project agrees, saying Manitoba services need to approach drug use from a public health perspective, not a criminal justice point of view.
"We need to be far more proactive and work more on overdose prevention, and improving health outcomes through the provision of a safer consumption site, implement drug testing and support legal, community access to safer drug supply," said executive director Jamil Mahmood.
Police chiefs sign off on idea
The Winnipeg Police Service wouldn't comment on the idea, but pointed out that Chief Danny Smyth sits on the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. That group publicly endorsed this idea in 2020.
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The Manitoba Association of Chiefs of Police has also endorsed specific aspects of the idea. Its website lists support for recommendations like decriminalizing the simple possession of illicit drugs, but recognizes that doesn't mean they're legal. The recommendation states that the penalty for possessing a small amount of illegal drugs "is either reduced/changed from a criminal conviction to a fine or other type of sanction."
The MACP website states that it recognizes addiction is not a crime, but a public health issue.
However, one councillor believes this all goes beyond the scope of what a city councillor should be doing.
"I think we need to stay in our lane," Coun. Kevin Klein (Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood) said in a YouTube video posted to his own channel.
"We've gotten out of our lane so often so that we can do what looks politically correct, or say what's politically correct and get it out on Instagram that we're not getting anything done for the City of Winnipeg."
Klein said there are other problems the city should be focusing on, like faster response times for 911 and 311 calls, or building "crumbling" infrastructure.
"We need to focus on what we were elected to focus on. That's why there's three levels of government," he said.