New Brunswick

Saint John police chief says solution to opioid deaths isn't arresting the dying

The Saint John police chief says drug dependency isn’t a crime, no one chooses to be addicted, and arresting people who use illegal drugs won’t help anyone. 

Committee struck to work with harm-reduction groups, government to reduce overdoses and deaths

Police Chief Robert Bruce says responding to increasing overdoses and deaths in Saint John shouldn't fall only on police. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

The Saint John police chief says being addicted to drugs isn't a crime, no one chooses to be addicted, and arresting people who use illegal drugs won't help anyone. 

While decriminalization is not a strategy he would support, Chief Robert Bruce said addressing drug overdoses and the ripple effect they have on the community is one of his priorities.

"I think dependency isn't a crime," he said in an interview with CBC News. "If you arrested drug users, they're not getting the help they need.

"The issue is that part of that crime is selling those drugs and manufacturing those drugs illegally."

Bruce has struck a community action committee to address the rising number of overdoses and overdose deaths in the city.

The Saint John police recently sent out a public safety alert, and said they've seen a 30 per cent increase in overdose calls in the first four months of 2022, compared to the same months in 2021.

Harm-reduction advocate Julie Dingwell, who's part of the committee struck by Bruce this month, said her organization and the chief are on the same page: "We don't want to see people die."

"How do we keep people alive?" said Dingwell, who's the executive director of Avenue B. " Dead people have no chance to recover."

The committee has specifically discussed how to give incarcerated people addiction treatment, and make sure they have a place to stay when they're released so they don't fall back on drugs, Dingwell said.

Eight of the 18 recent overdoses are suspected to have been caused by fentanyl, a potent opioid that's made its way to the street supply of drugs in the city.

Carfentanil, an opioid even more potent than fentanyl, has also been found in the drug supply and has killed at least two people this year.

Different roads to the same place

Dingwell previously said overdose deaths are preventable and the solution is twofold: Decriminalize drug use so people don't hesitate to get help, and provide prescriptions for a safer drug supply. And then provide safe housing so relapses don't happen.

Bruce and Dingwell both agree the priority should be getting people off of the dangerous, inconsistent opioids sold on the street.

Dingwell said lessening the dependency on drugs is not necessary if people can get a prescription for safe drugs. She said when the insecurity is addressed, big improvements would follow.

"Safe supply means that they're not out in the street buying the pills that they told us is Oxy, when in fact, it's laced with kind of fentanyl and they're almost surely going to die," she said.

Julie Dingwell, executive director of Avenue B, says she's hopeful the police chief's committee, which includes her organization and others, will put a dent in the increasing number of opioid deaths and overdoses. (CBC)

Bruce said the solution is to work with organizations such as Avenue B and eventually get people off drugs entirely.

"Not just go and get drugs and get high and and move along," he said. "How do we lessen the dependency? How do we support them through those issues? How do we get them to where they're not dependent at all anymore?" 

Dingwell said she's hopeful about the discussions happening at the committee.

"I think that we still have work to do together … I believe it's especially difficult coming from a correctional background in the way that we're changing things now," she said. 

"I would have to give the chief all the credit for saying, 'Well, let's do this, let's get together.'"

Dingwell said Health Minister Dorothy Shephard and and representatives from the Department of Social Development were present at the committee meeting. She said she sees this as a good sign.

"There were a lot of real movers and shakers on that table. So I guess we're going to see how good we can move and shake."


Hadeel Ibrahim is a reporter with CBC New Brunswick based in Saint John. She reports in English and Arabic. Email:

With files from Harry Forestell