Police commissioners discuss drug decriminalization to address overdose crisis

Pointing to the province's overdose deaths, police commissioner Kearney Healy said as street drugs become more dangerous, it’s important to discuss decriminalization. “They’re actually creating drugs now that Naloxone doesn’t help and there’s no way for any of the people to know whether or not what they’re consuming is a safe drug, or isn’t a safe drug."

There have been at least 575 accidental deaths due to drug toxicity in the province since 2019

The Saskatoon Board of Police Commissioners, seen here in a photo from 2019, are considering decriminalizing drugs in order to address the overdose crisis. (Morgan Modjeski/CBC)

Police commissioners in Saskatoon are considering decriminalizing drugs in order to address the province's overdose crisis.

Overdose deaths have skyrocketed in Saskatchewan in recent years, with provincial data showing 575 accidental deaths due to drug toxicity recorded between Jan. 1, 2019 and April 6 of this year. 

Pointing to the deaths, police commissioner Kearney Healy said street drugs are becoming more dangerous. 

"They're actually creating drugs now that Naloxone doesn't help," Healy said, referring to the medication used to block the effect of opioids. "And there's no way for any of the people to know whether or not what they're consuming is a safe drug, or isn't a safe drug." 

Police commissioners discussed decriminalization at their meeting Thursday, after a member of the public wrote asking the city to consider it under a federal exemption for prohibited substances in certain circumstances.

Healy noted the ask aligns with the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police call for drug reform last year, when it endorsed the decriminalization of personal possession of drugs and called for police agencies to recognize substance abuse and addiction as a public health issue.

Focus on serious offences

Troy Cooper, the chief of the Saskatoon Police Service, said his force already focuses on the more serious drug-trade offences and officers only consider possession charges when other, more serious factors are in play. He said a framework needs to be in place to ensure a healthcare response is possible before any changes take place.

"It's not just simply a one-step process towards decriminalization," Cooper said.

Healy said decriminalization would help ensure health authorities could, if desired, provide a safe supply of drugs without the risk of facing criminal charges. He said the number of opioid deaths in the province is alarming, and called for the board to support decriminalization "to get a handle on the opioid crisis."

Some commissioners at the meeting, including Brent Penner, who also represents the Downtown Business Improvement District, and Mayor Charlie Clark, said they were hesitant to have the board take a stand on the issue without more information on what the effect may be for Saskatoon as a whole.

"This is a big topic," Clark said. "I don't think we've quite had a chance to hear from some local perspectives in order to just come out and have a position." 

Clark said he understands the current response to the drug crisis is falling short, but he wants an opportunity to engage further with commissioners, health officials and harm reduction advocates on the issue to determine "the best way to tackle this."

Commissioners agreed to table the motion until further conversations about what type of insight and information needs to be collected before it takes an official stance.

Made up of both city councillors and civilians, the board consists of seven commissioners, and is set to meet again on June 17, at which time it's possible further discussion on the matter may take place.