Advocates asking Saskatoon police board to decriminalize some drug possession

Saskatoon's Board of Police Commissioners will be talking about decriminalizing possession of small amounts of illegal drugs at its meeting on Thursday.

Report says decriminalizing small amounts of drugs would help users, society

Saskatoon's Board of Police Commissioners will be talking about decriminalizing possession of small amounts of illegal drugs at a meeting this week. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

Saskatoon's Board of Police Commissioners will be talking about decriminalizing possession of small amounts of illegal drugs at its meeting on Thursday.

In August 2022, the board asked for a report looking into expanding harm reduction programs in the city, including decriminalizing simple possession of drugs.

Barb Fornssler, an adjunct professor at the school of public health at the University of Saskatchewan and co-author of one of the reports, said decriminalizing possession would benefit drug users and society as a whole.

"The majority of folks who do use substances would be less encumbered when it comes to accessing health resources and health supports to address their substance use," said Fornssler.

"It would also free up police resources and other community supports to be able to treat this issue as the health issue that it is, rather than as a criminal issue."

Decriminalizing small amounts of drugs is picking up momentum across the country. 

Last year, British Columbia and Vancouver both formally asked the federal government to be exempted from federal possession laws. Toronto also made a formal application to be exempted from the law in January.

While neither location has received a response from the federal government yet, Fornssler said it shows the idea is getting traction.

"I think a lot of our mayors and municipal representatives, they're seeing the day-to-day harm and they're hearing about it from their constituents," said Fornssler. 

"They want to take action sooner rather than later."

The report recommends that the City of Saskatoon make a formal request to the federal government to be exempted. 

Researchers also believe that police should severely limit the number of people charged with simple possession offences and include a public awareness campaign to notify the public.

"Federal processes can take some time. So there's an option on the table here where we could at least sort of support a de facto decriminalization," she said.

Health issue

Kayla DeMong, the executive director at Prairie Harm Reduction in Saskatoon, believes that decriminalization is the right thing to do. Prairie Harm Reduction houses the province's only safe consumption site.

DeMong said society needs to start looking at drugs as a health issue, not as a criminal issue.

She said it's encouraging that the Board of Police Commissioners began this research on its own.

"II think that just shows that this province is ready to have these conversations in a different way," said DeMong. 

Kayla DeMong is executive director at Prairie Harm Reduction in Saskatoon. (Kayla DeMong/LinkedIn)

DeMong said there are many reasons to decriminalize simple possession.

She said drug possession convictions have the potential to completely derail someone's life, affecting job prospects, travel and even volunteer opportunities.

Meanwhile, DeMong said she's interested in what decriminalization would look like in practice, including the amount of drugs that a person would be allowed to carry.

Few prosecutions

While the Saskatoon Police Service and Board of Police Commissioners declined comment until after the meeting is held, police provided an information update to the board in its own report.

Police numbers showed that 101 people had been charged with drug possession in 2021, which has been on a slight decline for the past several years.

A total of 124 possession-only charges were laid the previous year, with 488 possession charges laid in connection to other offences.

The report also took a look at the 83 people from Saskatoon who died from drug toxicity in 2021. Police said just over half of those people were involved in criminal activity in some way in the past year, including people who were charged with an offence or a named suspect.

However, the report also found that 80 per cent of the people who had died had never been charged with possession of an illicit substance.

Police noted that may drug possession charges never make it through the court system. According to police, about 78 per cent of all possession charges last year were either withdrawn, stayed or dismissed.

The police report also talked about concerns other police agencies had raised around decriminalization. The Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police issued a statement saying it did not support the measure unless more supports were in place.

The association also said provincial law around minors and vehicle operation should be drafted first.

If approved by the board, any changes would then need to be approved by Saskatoon city council.