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Local leaders express growing support for drug decriminalization

Police and civic leaders in Thunder Bay say they support decriminalizing simple drug possession, but some argue other steps must be made first.

THUNDER BAY — Leaders with Thunder Bay’s police service and municipal government say they’ve been convinced decriminalizing simple drug possession is the right move, but aren’t yet ready to ask the federal government to allow the policy locally.

The Trudeau government has shown its willingness to do so in at least one case so far, granting British Columbia an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act that has removed criminal sanctions for possession of 2.5 grams or less of many illicit drugs for a three-year period.

Municipalities can also apply for exemptions, which the City of Thunder Bay has considered, but has no current plans to do, despite endorsing decriminalization earlier this year.

The City of Toronto applied for an exemption well over a year ago, which is still under consideration, while a handful of other Ontario municipalities are believed to be considering applications of their own.  

Cynthia Olsen, a city staffer who leads the Thunder Bay Drug Strategy, said there would be drawbacks to a local exemption.

“I do think decriminalization is absolutely a critical approach that we consider,” she said. “I think a federal approach is probably the easiest to undertake, because then there wouldn’t be a piecemeal between provinces or within jurisdictions.”

She also characterized decriminalization as one tool in a larger harm reduction toolbox, saying it would have a limited impact on its own.

“We know it’s not going to change the toxicity of the drug supply, so that isn’t going to change the rates [of drug poisonings]. What it can do is really reduce stigma, reduce barriers to accessing harm reduction and treatment services in the community.”

City council voted unanimously to endorse a package of policy positions outlined by the Drug Strategy Network of Ontario (DSNO) in January.

Along with decriminalization, the campaign calls on the province and feds to expand funding for addictions treatment. including safe supply and supervised consumption programs.

While the federal government has offered at least limited support for those approaches, Premier Doug Ford has said he opposes decriminalization.

The idea appears to have won widespread support in Thunder Bay, however.

Members of the city’s crime prevention council and drug strategy implementation panel, including stakeholders from health, local government, social services, and law enforcement, held a set of meetings in 2020 in which they discussed the idea of pursing decriminalization.

“Not everybody was in support, but around 80 per cent of our members had support for considering that approach,” Olsen reported. “So I’d say there is some support, but there’s still some hesitancy.”

Holly Gauvin, executive director of Elevate NWO, which provides health services and other supports to clients including users of illicit drugs, is encouraged by the growing consensus.

“It certainly would be my hope that we would start to mirror what they’re doing in B.C.,” she said. “They’re already starting to see some really good outcomes, and people are starting to access some important services and support.”

She said criminalizing drug use increases stigma, making people less likely to reach out for support, and has been ineffective in reducing problematic drug use.

The Thunder Bay Police Service says it’s on board with decriminalization as a policy, but believes other steps must be in place first.

“The decriminalization discussion is not about us, the police, ignoring offenses, but supporting a multi-disciplinary structure to assist people getting off of their addiction issues,” said interim Chief Dan Taddeo in an interview.

“If we can get people off of their addictions, we can properly do our job, which I believe is to focus more on organized crime and those people who bring illicit drugs such as opioids into our city.”

He called initiatives like safe supply and supervised consumption sites crucial, along with expanded access to addictions and mental health treatment.

“The decriminalization aspect only comes into play when those pillars are met,” he said. “I think people have great ideas, but the governments that would have to fund these [services] — I think that is missing.”

Taddeo called that particularly essential in Thunder Bay, which had the highest rate of fatal opioid overdoses in the province last year, and among the highest in the country.

“I cannot accept something on a broad-brush approach if it’s happening in another province, or even happening in Ontario, unless this city gets what is needed based on our statistics,” said Taddeo. “The statistics cannot be ignored anymore, so I look forward to that support coming from the government.”

Taddeo said the police service already seeks to emphasize support over enforcement when it encounters people with small amounts of drugs who pose no threat to public safety.

“We do not take a blind approach to simply issue charges,” he said. “This police service is more in tune with helping people by getting them to our partners, whether it’s through Elevate or Path 525.”

Gauvin said she’s seen that shift in practice.

“We’ve gone on some calls where it was clear there was active drug use taking place, but [officers] were careful to make observations [that] there were no weapons, no large sums of money — there were just small amounts obviously being used personally, this is a health issue, so we’re going to leave it in the health providers’ hands to take care of.”

She said she understands some of Taddeo’s concerns.

“I agree with their position — don’t just pull it out of the Criminal Code and hope for the best. We absolutely need to step up our system.”

Taddeo cited Portugal, which decriminalized simple possession in 2001, as an example.

“If you look at the model they have in Portugal, [it’s] all health-based, but there are [rules] that if people who go through a very structured program don’t abide by it, then there are sanctions in place,” Taddeo said.

Olsen shared some concerns over how decriminalization would be implemented without first expanding mental health and addictions supports.

“We know we have gaps in our addiction and mental health services,” she said. “If one of our goals with decriminalization is reducing stigma and increasing access to services, if they’re not there, then that could be problematic.”

Despite those challenges, Olsen sees momentum behind the push to decriminalize.

“I couldn’t put a timeframe on it, but I think given that the federal government approved a framework for a whole province to undertake, it’s certainly something that’s plausible that we may see across Canada — and we may even see it in Toronto in the next little while.”

Gauvin said with the opioid crisis claiming more and more lives, the time for action is now.

“I think it would be a real misstep for Thunder Bay if they don’t look at this and take it under serious consideration and try to move this forward,” she said.

“This is absolutely the next step for us. I feel like we’re ready. We’re considered per capita worse than the epicentre of the overdose crisis out in B.C.”

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that members of the city's crime prevention council and drug strategy implementation panel met to discuss decriminalization in 2020, not 2021. TBnewswatch regrets the error.

Ian Kaufman

About the Author: Ian Kaufman

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