Saskatoon police are going to mull over additional information before looking at decriminalizing personal possession of substances.
After a discussion which lasted nearly two hours at the Board of Police Commissioners meeting Thursday prompted by a pair of preliminary reports on the matter, the board approved motions to continue investigating decriminalization and asked the Saskatoon Police Service to deliver a report in the fall on the potential diversion of drug charges to the health system.
Barb Fornssler, an adjunct professor at the school of public health at the University of Saskatchewan, co-authored one of the reports looking into expanding harm reduction programs in Saskatoon, including decriminalizing simple possession of drugs.
“I think having worked in this field for 10-plus years now and being well versed in that evidence, yes, I would love to see it move forward. I would love to see action immediately. Because the evidence is overwhelmingly toward the benefits of decriminalization,” Fornssler said Friday.
In August 2021, the board asked for a report looking into expanding harm reduction programs in Saskatoon. Thursday’s meeting discussed the report co-authored by Fornssler and Supt. Patrick Nogier compiled Saskatoon police’s report on decriminalization.
Fornssler’s report recommends the City of Saskatoon make a formal request to the federal government to be exempted, something Vancouver and Toronto have already done. Neither city has received a response from the federal government as of yet.
The report also recommends police severely limit the amount of simple drug possession charges while launching a public awareness campaign – a way to move from de facto decriminalization towards de jure decriminalization.
“We know that decriminalization takes place currently in Saskatchewan already. It’s a de-facto process that happens at the federal Crown prosecutor (level) when they examine the charges, but what we’re trying to look at is on the front end, can the police do more to divert people away from Justice initially, Chief Troy Cooper said following the meeting.
While Fornssler was happy to answer questions from the board, she was hoping Saskatoon could lead rather than wait for months for other municipalities to draw up a framework.
“I think it is an opportunity for Saskatoon to show leadership on this issue and I hope we’ll take that opportunity rather than waiting to follow other municipalities later,” she said.
Police numbers in Nogier’s report showed 101 people had been charged with drug possession in 2021. A total of 124 possession-only charges were laid and 488 possession charges were laid in connection to other offences.
“We understand that the situation involving drugs and drug overdoses and the crisis we find ourselves in Saskatchewan is a very complicated one,” Cooper said.
Knowing that one-third of all overdose deaths in Saskatchewan occur in Saskatoon, Cooper said there is some urgency to move forward with decriminalization, but it has to be done right.
With police showing a willingness to change its approach on drug enforcement – roughly 78 per cent of all possession charges last year were either withdrawn, stayed or dismissed, according to police – Fornssler said a new approach is direly needed.
“I often say to my students and to others… we shouldn’t be so scared to make change because we can’t possibly do it worse than the war on drugs,” she said.