We, Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, stand firmly in our support of efforts to immediately decriminalize the possession of illicit drugs across the country.

On July 9th, 2020, following years of organizing by grassroots drug policy and harm reduction groups, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police presented its position in favour of decriminalizing drug possession. Decriminalization of illicit drug possession has the potential to profoundly impact criminalization among young peoplebeing one of the most common youth criminal offences — but this potential will not be realized with decriminalization alone. Further, not all calls for decriminalization are equal and we must be critical of the ways in which decriminalization can reproduce policing and punishment through other systems. While we support decriminalization broadly, we have significant concerns about the position taken by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, and their attempt to center themselves within the decriminalization narrative.

1. Penalties

Fines, as well as diversion to mandatory treatment, still put people’s lives at risk. Although we agree that drug treatment is best addressed by the healthcare system rather than the criminal justice system, monetary fines and forced treatment are not healthcare, they’re policing by other means. And what about people under the age of 18 or 19? Thus, while drug use may fall under the purview of health for some young people, the decriminalization conversation cannot be devoid of calls for a refocusing of human rights, bodily autonomy, agency and choice. No one wants to call 911 if there is a threat of a fine. Historically in Canada, when penalties have been lowered, police have used the opportunity to target people who use drugs more, not less*.

2. If this is a health issue, then why are the police involved?

The CACP agrees that substance use is a health issue, not a criminal issue; if so, why are the police recommending they be the ones to respond to and divert people towards treatment? In their statement, the CACP notes that: “frontline officers would continue to be the first point of contact for any diversion model.” While Vancouver is held up as a model of de facto decriminalization, research done in Vancouver has demonstrated that police frequently spend time near Overdose Prevention Services, causing people who use drugs to be less likely to use those services. As noted, by Alex Collins, a former board member of CSSDP: 

“Increased visibility of law en-forcement and surveillance undertaken in the same areas as OPS discouraged participants from engaging in the street-based drug scene and incited fears of arrest. As such, despite OPS serving as safer environments to consume drugs amid an overdose crisis, drug-scene policing practices (e.g. neighborhood sweeps, foot patrol) created barriers to engagement for many participants, reinforcing their structural vulnerability and increasing their risk of drug-related harm”

Whereas police officers do not attend overdose 911 calls in Vancouver, in other parts of Canada, they do. Their continued attendance leads to the continual persecution of people who use drugs. We must pay close attention to what the intentions of decriminalization are, and what is offered as an alternative to criminal charges resulting from drug possession. Fines for drug possession still penalize drug use. Mandated treatment still penalizes drug use. 

3. Sidelining People who use Drugs

As the decriminalization dialogue continues to evolve and shift, the Special Purpose Committee recommends, in cooperation with the 2019 Global Studies program, that the CACP advocate for a national task force to be created which would include Public Safety, Department of Justice, the Public Prosecution Service, Health Canada, CACP representatives and subject matter experts to research Canadian drug policy reform. – CACP Report (14)

By viewing the call to begin decriminalization as an issue of enforcement, rather than health, the CACP has centred itself within a conversation that activists have been working on for years. Nowhere in the report, is the safety of people who use drugs, or their thoughts explored. It is critical that the voices of those with living and lived experiences of criminalization and people who use drugs be centered in discussions involving the impact and implementation of decriminalization. Decriminalization would be an essential first step, but it must be accompanied by a broader understanding of the immediate need for support and not punishment, and for centring the lived experiences of people who use drugs, as well as a harsh look at the structures present within the Canadian health and criminal justice systems that will continue to harm people who use drugs even when not a criminal offence. 

We should not seek to reinvent the ways in which people who use drugs are penalized, but rather to eliminate these penalties altogether. This is what sensible drug policy that is truly based on supporting the health and wellbeing of people entails. 

*From Giffen, Endicott and Lambert (483), on the Food and Drugs Act (FDA) implemented in the 1960s to respond to baribiturates, amphetamines and psychedelics. Lower penalties to make the case in the courts for punishment that were not possible in the older drug regulations (see below)