Edmonton to examine working toward decriminalizing minor drug offenses

A city council committee will examine the decriminalization of illegal drugs to help reduce the number of drug poisoning deaths.

According to data released by the provincial government, 666 Edmontonians and nearly 1,800 Albertans died from drug overdoses last year, with at least a record-breaking one hundred deaths every month.

“That’s nearly two preventable deaths a day,” said Michael Janz, ward papastew councillor.

In January, Janz asked for a report from the city administration that explored pathways Edmonton could take towards decriminalizing small amounts of illegal drugs, following the lead of other Canadian major cities like Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

This week, councilors on the community and public services committee will receive the report and decide whether to move ahead, which would require a subsequent motion recommending city council to consider the issue.

“It’s an entirely preventable drug crisis,” Janz told CTV News Edmonton. “This is an enormous number. We need to look at any measure we can.

“Any evidence-based measure, like decriminalization, that can help get people out of the criminal justice system into a public health system where they can see doctors, where they can get a prescription, and where they can get at the root causes driving the addiction… is needed,” he added.

Elaine Hyshka, Canada Research Chair in Health Systems Innovation and an assistant professor at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health, echoes Janz’s calls.

“We’ve been watching the situation worsen in Alberta over the past two years,” Hyshka said. “There’s been a very little concerted effort to try and reverse the trend.”

Hyshka said her research has shown that many drug users at risk of overdosing will not consider seeking treatment due to societal stigma and fear of prosecution.

“If we can move in the direction where we are not criminalizing people who are struggling, I think that will go a long way actually in encouraging people to have conversations and seek help,” she said.

“We know that criminalizing minor drug possession is not an effective deterrent of substance use. It costs our whole society a lot of money,” Hyshka said, adding that those resources could better be spent on treatment, harm reduction, or other health services.

The Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police said in January that it does “not currently support the decriminalization of illicit drugs, without the required supports being in place.”

“It’s about time we put this stigma aside and stop politicizing this,” Janz said.

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