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The top police chiefs association in Canada made a bold call for drug policy reform on Thursday, arguing that low-level possession should be decriminalized and substance misuse should be treated as a public health matter.

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) said that its recommendation is motivated by an interest in reducing overdose deaths and promoting treatment. This announcement comes two years after the organization created a commission tasked with studying decriminalization, the results of which were released in a new report.

“Canada continues to grapple with the fentanyl crisis and a poisoned drug supply that has devastated our communities and taken thousands of lives,” CACP President Adam Palmer said in a press release. “We recommend that enforcement for possession give way to an integrated health-focussed approach that requires partnerships between police, healthcare and all levels of government.“

In addition to decriminalizing simple possession of currently illicit drugs, CACP said additional resources should be invested into treatment and social services in order to divert people away from the criminal justice system. That said, the group stressed it would continue to go after those who engage in drug trafficking, manufacturing and importation.

“While law enforcement continues to be required to stop those putting poisoned and illegal substances on our streets, the traditional role of frontline policing has fundamentally shifted to harm reduction when interacting with people experiencing addiction or mental health issues,” Palmer said. “Frequently, our officers are the point of first contact and the ones who will assist individuals in accessing appropriate services and pathways of care.”

CACP said a national task force should be established to research drug policy reform proposals that would help accomplish their goal of harm reduction. They cited a specific federal statute on possession that they feel should be revised to provide alternatives to criminal penalties for possession.

“Evidence suggests, and numerous Canadian health leaders support, decriminalization for simple possession as an effective way to reduce the public health and public safety harms associated with substance use.”

“Some evidence has shown that [decriminalization], coupled with other interventions (e.g. harm reduction, prevention, enforcement, and treatment strategies) has led to an increase in treatment uptake, a reduction in drug-related deaths, and importantly, no increase in drug use rates,” the commission report states. However, policymakers must also determine what amount constitutes simple possession, what penalties would be appropriate and how to encourage people to enter treatment, the police group pointed out.

“We must adopt new and innovative approaches if we are going to disrupt the current trend of drug overdoses impacting communities across Canada,” the report says. “Merely arresting individuals for simple possession of illicit drugs has proven to be ineffective. Research from other countries who have boldly chosen to take a health rather than an enforcement-based approach to problematic drug use have demonstrated positive results.”

“Implementing a response model centered on diversion that provides individuals impacted by problematic substance use access to health resources may be more effective than our current model of enforcement or de facto decriminalization. Responding to problematic substance use in our communities is a complex issue requiring a full spectrum of options and partnerships to impact real change. Finding pathways of care and support for individuals with problematic substance use is critical to reducing overdose deaths. Health is best positioned to address problematic substance use and not the police.”

The CACP report also weighed the pros and cons of going beyond decriminalization and regulating currently illicit drugs. It recognized that decriminalization alone would not eradicate the illegal market and noted that higher-risk drugs could potentially be tightly regulated through prescriptions, for instance.

“Developing a regulation framework should also apply lessons learned from what has and has not been effective in the regulation of other drugs, such as alcohol, prescription drugs, and cannabis,” the association said, adding that legalization “may lead to increased drug use, and potentially increase addiction rates, with greater access and reduced prices, unless heavy taxation is in place.”

The group said that while its leaders currently “do not support the legalization of drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine or opioids,” they do back “evidence based medical treatment that includes a safe supply.”

Noting that some people resort to theft or robbery in order to obtain money needed to buy drugs, CACP said that “diverting individuals to a safe supply may reduce crime that is committed to support a drug addiction and enhance public safety.”

“Merely arresting individuals for simple possession of illicit drugs has proven to be ineffective.”

Maj. Neill Franklin (Ret.), executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), told Marijuana Moment that, “Once again, Canada has the right idea.”

“In the U.S., we tend to get hung up on minor points of disagreement, but what communities and most police can agree on is that right now we’re asking our police to do too much, to the detriment of everyone involved,” he said. “We should follow the lead of the CACP and seek a more effective system where police focus on real crime and allow public health, social services, and drug abuse counselors to keep as many people as possible out of the criminal justice system and in programs that actually better their lives.”

Liberal delegates in Canada voted in favor of a resolution that sought to remove criminal penalties for drug offenses at a convention in 2018, hoping to put the policy on the party’s campaign platform. However, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau disappointed advocates by dismissing the proposal despite his advocacy for marijuana legalization.

“We are going to focus on getting the control and regulation of [the] marijuana regime right, and that’s quite a handful right now,” he said. “We’re not looking at any other steps.”

But despite opposition from the prime minister, some Liberal lawmakers have continued to push for decriminalization. MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith introduced a bill last year that would repeal sections of federal drug law that concern possession, effectively decriminalizing controlled substances.

And the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health, which is controlled by the majority Liberals, issued a report recommending the government “work with provinces, territories, municipalities and Indigenous communities and law enforcement agencies to decriminalize the simple possession of small quantities of illicit substances.”

And on Thursday, two ministers of Trudeau’s government issued a statement expressing appreciation for the new CACP report.

“Today, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police released a report that recognizes substance use as a public health issue and examines a range of alternatives to criminal sanctions in response to the offence of simple possession,” Justice Minister David Lametti and Health Minister Patty Hajdu said. “We welcome their endorsement of a holistic approach including harm reduction and diversion, and thank them for their recommendations.”

Over in the U.S., reform advocates are increasingly exploring decriminalizing drugs beside cannabis. An Oregon initiative to decriminalize drug possession and expand substance use treatment formally qualified for the ballot last week, for example. In Washington State, advocates behind a similar proposal said they will be shifting their focus away from the ballot and onto the legislature to enact the reform during the next session.

While Congress has so far declined to pursue decriminalization outside of marijuana, a number of top prosecutors visited Portugal to learn about the country’s decriminalization policy last year.

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