N.S. police chiefs back call to decriminalize possession of small amounts of illegal drugs


The association representing Nova Scotia’s police chiefs is backing its federal counterpart in calling on Ottawa to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs for personal consumption.

Last week, the president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police said Canada’s enforcement-based approach for possession should be replaced with a health-care approach instead.

“Being addicted to a controlled substance is not a crime and should not be treated as such,” said CACP president Chief Const. Adam Palmer.

Chief Julia Cecchetto, president of the Nova Scotia Chiefs of Police Association and the chief of the Kentville Police Service, agrees with CACP’s position.

“It’s very progressive and it will be very helpful to our at-risk citizens within the province,” she said.

Nineteen Nova Scotians have died of opioid overdoses so far in 2020. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Cecchetto said the move wouldn’t be that inconsistent with what police forces are already doing. She said often, officers will seize drugs without laying charges against the person anyway.

“We’ve actually been doing this for many years. I think that police officers have always had discretion,” she said.

“This will just kind of put a more formalized lens on it and hopefully get some other things in place that will actually help the addicts.”

Freeing up resources

Decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs would let police instead focus on finding drug traffickers, said Cecchetto.

“I think if you ask any police officer across this province or across this country, those are the people that we actually are interested in catching,” she said. “The user is really the … victim in all of this, but the trafficker is the one who is profiting off of the hurt and the pain.”

Cecchetto also said it could free up court time if the courts weren’t tied up with these “relatively minor offences.”

But the chief also said decriminalization alone isn’t enough. She said the country also needs to better fund health and addictions services to help people get the treatment they need, as well as social programs like homeless shelters.

“Often, even when they’re ready for help, the problem is the facilities that we have are already filled and there’s waiting lists to get the services or the help that they need that might let them break away from whatever drug they’re addicted to,” said Cecchetto.

The opioid epidemic

The opioid crisis has in part helped drive the push to decriminalize the possession of illicit drugs, said Cecchetto. Nineteen Nova Scotians have died of opioid overdoses so far in 2020.

Although she said the East Coast has not been hit as hard by the opioid epidemic as other parts of the country, Cecchetto said other street drugs like crack cocaine and ecstasy pills containing fentanyl have been found in Nova Scotia.

“The people who are purchasing those drugs aren’t aware that that’s what they’re purchasing, so they may be getting themselves into a life-and-death situation and not even realize that’s what they’re doing,” she said.

In a statement last week from federal Minister of Health Patty Hajdu and Justice Minister David Lametti, they said they welcomed the “endorsement of a holistic approach” to dealing with the opioid crisis.

“We appreciate efforts made by law enforcement officers to consider alternative options to criminal charges for simple possession of illicit drugs in appropriate cases, and recognize the importance of reducing barriers to treatment, as well as integrated partnerships between law enforcement and health and social services,” the statement said. 

The ministers also said the federal government would continue to work with substance abuse experts, first responders and law enforcement to further their own public health approach to dealing with the opioid epidemic. 

“Our government remains committed to advancing evidence-based responses to help reverse the trend of opioid overdose deaths and other substance-related harms in Canada,” the statement said.

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