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Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer arrives for a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday November 8, 2017. Canada's police chiefs are calling for decriminalization of personal possession of illicit drugs as the best way to battle substance abuse and addiction.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Canada’s police chiefs are calling on Ottawa to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of hard drugs, which they argue is urgently needed to slow opioid deaths and help people addicted to illicit substances.

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police released a report Thursday underscoring how the criminal-justice system has been ineffective in dealing with people who are battling substance use and addiction issues.

The group, which includes the chiefs of most police forces in the country, said a shift in federal drug laws is urgently needed to divert these users away from the courts and into the hands of health care and social-service providers. This is a long-standing demand of activists, scientists and public-health officials from across the country.

The call for decriminalization by the chiefs could represent an inflection point in the push to treat illicit drug use as a health issue rather than something for the criminal-justice system to handle. The association has been shifting its approach in recent years toward that model.

Decriminalization is also something the Liberal government has said it would not do. During last fall’s election campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rejected attacks from the Conservative Party that he would legalize hard drugs by stating that his government would not decriminalize any more drugs after cannabis in its second term. The Liberal government has repeatedly stated that it would not consider decriminalization despite calls from top health officials in Canada and abroad.

At a news conference inside Vancouver police headquarters, several chiefs noted that “the sky has not fallen” after cannabis became legal two years ago. They called on Ottawa to create a federal task force that will repeal the criminal possession of small amounts of drugs and offer a health-based approach to dealing with people caught carrying these substances.

“We have less than two Canadians die per day of homicide and we have 11 Canadians a day dying of overdose,” said Adam Palmer, head of the CACP and a Vancouver police constable. “So it’s a significant public safety issue and a public health issue that we need to have a different approach with.

“Police are put out to deal with these things on the front lines and in many cases are not the best people to be dealing with them.”

Decriminalization would allow police forces to focus their efforts on investigating drug traffickers and importers selling the “poison” killing thousands in recent years, he said.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Attorney-General David Lametti e-mailed a joint response Thursday welcoming the CACP’s “holistic approach including harm reduction and diversion.” They thanked the chiefs for their recommendations and highlighted Ottawa’s compassionate approach to ending the opioid crisis, but made no commitment to decriminalization.

Last month, an all-party parliamentary health committee that toured Canada to study the impact of methamphetamine use recommended that Ottawa decriminalize simple possession of illicit substances and establish a pilot project to provide a safer supply of the drug.

Just over a year ago, Bonnie Henry, B.C.‘s Provincial Health Officer, called on Canada’s westernmost province to take steps to bring about de facto decriminalization without involving the federal government, which has the mandate to control drug policy.

Dr. Henry noted that the current criminal approach to drug use “exposes non-violent, otherwise law-abiding people to a great deal of harms” and said the B.C. government could use its powers to direct police to prioritize harm-reduction approaches.

At an unrelated news conference on Thursday, B.C. Premier John Horgan said he supports the CACP’s decriminalization call and noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the ongoing opioid crisis, with May’s 170 suspected overdose deaths making it the deadliest month on record.

Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, said that, on a June 23 video conferencing call with other HIV/AIDS groups, Ms. Hajdu acknowledged the receipt of a letter signed by his organization and 50 others calling for immediate decriminalization.

Harsha Walia, executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, said decriminalization is long overdue, but worried that a ticketing regime that replaces criminal charges could disproportionately affect racialized populations already targeted by police.

Chief Mike Serr, head of the municipal force in Abbotsford, B.C., and co-chair of the committee that wrote the CACP’s decriminalization report, said he has known since 1994 that these drug laws have been harmful. That is when, as a beat cop on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, he confiscated the heroin of a street-level sex worker and left her in an alley to secure another dose.

“It really has stuck with me my entire career that I revictimized a person who, at that point, needed nothing more than help and support,” he said at the news conference Thursday.

With a report from Ian Bailey

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