Drug Decriminalization Inches Closer in Saskatoon, Canada

    The Saskatoon Board of Police Commissioners (SBPC) met on April 21 to discuss the decriminalization of drug possession in Saskatchewan’s largest city. After a lengthy debate, the group endorsed “the idea of finding the right model.” But it remains to be seen what exactly that means.

    “Decriminalization, led through health and taking into account the needs of enforcement and policing, is the correct way to attack this issue,” board Vice Chair Kearney Healy told Filter.

    Key specifics, such as the thresholds for quantities that would be considered personal possession, have not yet emerged.

    The decision of whether to apply for a Health Canada exemption is up to Saskatoon’s municipal government.

    In Canada, possession of state-banned drugs is federally prohibited by the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Jurisdictions can apply for an exemption from Health Canada to decriminalize possession, as Toronto and Vancouver have done. The province of British Columbia has separately put forward its own exemption application. Health Canada has yet to issue any decisions.

    Last year, public health researchers at the University of Saskatchewan submitted a report outlining a decriminalization approach to the SBPC. That resulted in the board creating a report of its own in response, and led to the April 21 convening in which both were discussed.

    Barbara Fornssler, one of the authors of the University of Saskatchewan report, described the overall outcome as positive, though she “would have liked to see a full endorsement of [that] report’s decriminalization approach, to move the conversation to the municipality and city council.”

    The decision of whether to apply for a Health Canada exemption is up to Saskatoon’s municipal government. Fornssler believes an endorsement from the police should make a positive decision more likely.

    The prospect of a decriminalization model designed to accommodate “the needs of law enforcement” rather than just the needs of the people being decriminalized may make many uneasy—Vancouver’s model is controversial for that very reason. Yet Saskatchewan is one of Canada’s more conservative provinces, and it’s notable that decriminalization is being discussed at a policy level in Saskatoon.

    Over the next few months, according to Healy, the SBPC will explore what an appropriate model might look like. This process will involve consultations with people who use drugs, through organizations including Prairie Harm Reduction.

    An option outlined in the University of Saskatchewan report is “de facto decriminalization.”

    “We will continue our conversations with [the police] about how to better serve and protect and support people who use substances in our community,” Prairie Harm Reduction Executive Director Kayla DeMong told Filter.

    An option outlined in the University of Saskatchewan report is “de facto decriminalization,” wherein people aren’t prosecuted for simple possession even though the law hasn’t yet caught up. This could get the ball rolling on formal decriminalization. “It’s an early stage in what could be a much longer process,” Fornssler told Filter. But it’s also something the SBPC can implement “kind of immediately.”

    Healy described de facto decriminalization as something that already exists. The SBPC report noted that around 78 percent of all possession charges in 2021 were withdrawn, stayed or dismissed. “While that’s going on [we can] really get it right,” he said.

    Fornssler disagrees with this characterization; de facto decriminalization requires broad messaging to the public, she said, which hasn’t been done. She also emphasized that police officers should receive guidelines standardizing how they’re meant to approach possession cases, rather than leaving it to personal discretion, which threatens the continued criminalization of Black and Brown drug users.

    DeMong said that Prairie Harm Reduction is open to providing drug-user perspectives to other relevant organizations. And like Fornssler, she wants the discussion “pushed up to the provincial and federal levels,” she said. “The true success will be when we see policy implementation across the country.”



    Photograph of Saskatoon by Louis White via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Doug is a writer, editor and journalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark Magazine, New Scientist and Hakai, among others. He lives in Alberta, Canada.

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