While Canada continues to fight an opioid epidemic, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police calls on federal lawmakers to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illegal drugs for personal use.
President of CACP, Chief Const. Adam Palmer said it is time to rethink how police and governments approach the use and abuse of illegal drugs to save lives.
"Arresting individuals for simple possession of illicit drugs has proven to be ineffective. It does not save lives," said Palmer. "CACP recognizes substance use and dependence as a public health problem. Being addicted to a controlled substance is not a crime and should not be treated as such.
"We recommend that Canada's tenure approach based on law enforcement be replaced by a health care approach that diverts people from the criminal justice system."
CACP is a non-profit organization that represents around 1,300 police chiefs from federal, United Nations, provincial, regional, transport and military police services across the country.
Palmer said that as an alternative to the criminal model, partnerships could be formed between social services, the police, the health sector and governments to ensure that drug users have access to the treatment they need.
The focus of police efforts, he said, should be combating drug trafficking and the illegal production and importation of drugs – a task that the police are better suited to tackle.
Palmer said that this change in policing would require changes at the federal level in the Drugs and Controlled Substances Act.
In 2018, the CACP commissioned a committee to explore the impacts on public security and policing to move towards decriminalization.
The report, delivered this month, concluded that substance abuse is a public health problem and that taking a public health approach would lead to lower rates of crime, overdoses and blood-borne diseases.
Palmer was asked about #defundthepolice on social media and whether Canadian police forces are willing to see their funding diverted to social services or healthcare.
He said that in Vancouver, where he serves as the chief of police for the Vancouver Police Department, the police are already looking differently at simple possession cases in order to focus resources on trafficking and production – so there may not be much money to divert.
Palmer said he was willing to discuss the notion of redirecting police funding to other initiatives if all affected parties are consulted.
A statement from Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Justice Minister David Lametti said they welcomed the "endorsement of a holistic approach" to address the opioid crisis.
"We appreciate the efforts made by the police to consider alternative options to criminal charges for the simple possession of illicit drugs in appropriate cases and we recognize the importance of reducing barriers to treatment, as well as integrated partnerships between police and health and social services," said the communicated.
Ministers went on to say that the federal government would continue to work with substance abuse experts, first responders and law enforcement officials to promote its own public health approach to dealing with the opioid epidemic.
"Our government remains committed to advancing evidence-based responses to help reverse the trend of deaths from opioid overdose and other substance-related damage in Canada."