Why the head of Ontario's police chiefs says we can't 'charge our way out' of the opioid crisis

Chatham-Kent's chief of police is adding his voice to the growing call on the federal government to decriminalize small amounts of illicit drugs, as opioid deaths, overdoses, and emergency room visits continue to climb across the country. 

There's a growing call to decriminalize opioids and the police association is adding its voice

Chatham-Kent Police Chief Gary Conn, who is also the 2021 president of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, is backing the growing calls to federal decriminalize drugs with an emphasis on a health-based approach. (OACP)

Chatham-Kent's chief of police is adding his voice to the growing calls on the federal government to decriminalize small amounts of illicit drugs, as opioid deaths, overdoses, and emergency room visits climb across the country. 

Chief Gary Conn, who is also the current president of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, said this move isn't a traditional approach for police forces, but that the opioid crisis demands police forces across the country adapt. 

Recently, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto formally pushed for countrywide drug decriminalization. Cities and municipalities — including in Chatham-Kent — have also supported the idea. 

Conn spoke with CBC News about his views on decriminalization and how it could help those "suffering" with addiction. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why should this change happen? 

The primary reason is we want to guard against having a myopic view in addressing this issue. Over the years, we realized that we cannot arrest and charge our way out of this crisis — the opioid crisis. But instead, what we've got to do is examine the underlying issues surrounding drug addictions. So my proposal and what we are supporting is an integrated approach, a support which is a more health-based approach rather than a criminal approach.

For those caught with simple possession, what it will do is it'll take it out of the shadows of criminality and the stigma attached to it and transform it into a medical issue that can be managed by the appropriate subject matter experts. And what I'm referring to in regards to that are health-care, social services and to be quite honest, all all levels of government when we're talking about an integrated approach. 

What have you seen in your job that has convinced you this is the solution? 

Through this approach, we're addressing the underlying issues surrounding why people are suffering from drug addictions as opposed to a criminal offence. There would still be a criminal response, but we would enforce with non-criminal sanctions such as fines, warnings, rehabilitation or pre-charge diversionary programs.

By doing that, it'll get people — which a lot of the times we're talking about marginalized and the vulnerable sector of our society — get them the appropriate services and care that they really need to eventually get back to their normal self and back into the community. 

This isn't a traditional stance from the police. When did this shift? 

I think it's been a gradual shift and it's taken years for us to appreciate the fact that simply arresting and charging people is not resolving this crisis, and that's truly what it is. 

By doing this, we'll be able to direct more of our resources and attention to some of the more egregious drug offences, such as trafficking, importing and exporting and obviously organized crime. We also know that there is a direct correlation between drug offences and gun offences, human trafficking, property crimes, and the list goes on. 

As president of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP), who do you still have to convince this is the way to go?

I think it's an approach that we have to take a look at that needs to be collaborative. It needs to have all the relevant stakeholders come to the table and recognize the fact that the traditional historical way that we've dealt with issues of this nature are not working.

In that regard, what we have done {in the OACP] is we passed at our annual general meeting 10 resolutions. A couple of those resolutions dealt with drug related concerns. One of them, in particular, was us calling upon the Ontario government to establish a drug task force and basically a co-ordinator position to liaison with the Ministry of Health and obviously police services. 

I think if the provincial government establishes this Ontario drug task force that we're calling upon to collectively develop the way forward in dealing with opioids, other drugs and the related issues associated to problematic use already know that that will mitigate a lot of these concerns and issues that we're dealing with today. 


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