Edmonton city councilors took a big step Monday in the movement to decriminalize illegal drug possession, an attempt to “reduce drug poisoning injuries and deaths.”
The city’s Community and Public Services Committee voted 5-0 to develop a decriminalization strategy so the federal government can be lobbied for an exemption, something several other big cities are doing.
Councilors Tim Cartmell, Michael Janz, Karen Tang and Jo-Anne Wright all voted for the motion, as did Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, who brought it forward. The plan still needs to be approved by city council, as a whole.
“I think it was about four years ago that I attended a funeral of someone who passed because of overdose,” Sohi said during the meeting.
“But it was very difficult for the family to acknowledge and admit (the cause of death) because of the stigma attached to it…The stigma was attached because of shame. The stigma was attached because of criminalization.”
Sohi believes decriminalization needs to be one part of Edmonton’s policy going forward.
His motion also advocates for progress on “safe supply, safe consumption sites, treatment and supportive housing,” including lobbying the province and federal governments for funding.
More than 1,700 drug toxicity deaths were recorded in Alberta last year – the highest yearly total on record.
‘SIGNIFICANT IMPACT ON HARM’
A number of harm-reduction advocates and medical professionals urged councilors to move forward with decriminalization efforts.
“We need to decriminalize minor drug offenses, because we know that while it doesn’t really deter substance use, it has a significant impact on harm,” said Elaine Hyshka, a researcher and professor at the University of Alberta.
Petra Shultz, who co-founded Moms Stop The Harm, told council that her son Danny died of Fentanyl poisoning in 2014, just blocks away from City Hall.
“We need them to feel safe to reach out for help, but fear and stigma prevent that. Nothing stigmatizes like a criminal record. It impacts where people can live, what they can study, where they can work, travel, and who they might enter a relationship with,” Shultz told the committee.
“We also hear that decriminalization is going to fail. To that I say: what we’re doing right now is an abysmal failure, unless you measure success by the number of funerals families have to arrange.”
Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto have already asked the federal government to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs, in an effort to prevent further deaths caused by drug poisoning and overdoses.
‘WE’RE NOT READY’
In January, the Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police warned against decriminalizing drugs, without further work in the areas of health, social services and justice.
“By itself, decriminalization would not reduce rates of addiction or overdose,” said Calgary Police Chief Mark Neufeld, who was speaking for the group.
He believes premature changes will result in complaints and open public drug use that will lead to more work for officers.
“If you were to just pull sort of one lever, and it was going to be the decriminalization lever, all it would do is just make it easier to possess illicit drugs and also to see individuals using them in public,” Neufeld said. “We’re not ready.”
Alberta’s police chiefs have also stated that, as it is, they rarely arrest people for simple drug possession. But Shultz argued that an unwritten policy is problematic.
“We leave the decision to arrest or not in the hands of individual officers, who when we allow for that level of discretion, Indigenous people and people of color are disproportionately arrested, charged and incarcerated,” she stated.
‘I RESPECTFULLY DISAGREE’
A local family doctor and health researcher said there’s little evidence to suggest that open drug use would rise, a point that was argued by a councillor.
“I have yet to see anything that suggests there’s an increase in public use, public disorder, arising from this. If anything people are encouraged to use in safer spaces…Are we going to have people using drugs in a public square? I think that’s very, very unlikely to happen,” said Ginetta Salvalaggio.
“I respectfully disagree. Because I actually witness it myself often, seeing drug use in the open, and again that has been brought forward to me from constituents,” said Coun. Karen Prince.
She said she’s noticed more drivers smoking marijuana since it was legalized, and spoke of a mother and her kids seeing open drug use in an Edmonton LRT station.
“The concern is, will that be increasing?” Prince wondered.
The motion passed Monday calls for city staff to work with Alberta Health Services, Alberta Health, Edmonton Police Service, public health and medical experts and Indigenous people, among others, to develop a decriminalization plan.
Drug trafficking laws would not be affected by the motion. A report on next steps is due back to city council early next year.
With files from CTV News Calgary’s Timm Bruch and The Canadian Press