Report on the Decriminalization for Simple Possession of Illicit Drugs: The Police Perspective

Essay, Government, Anil Anand

The Canadian Association for Police Services has just released a fourteen-page report on the decriminalization of drugs (Findings and recommendations report. Decriminalization for Simple Possession of Illicit Drugs: Exploring Impacts on Public Safety & Policing, Special Purpose Committee on the Decriminalization of Illicit Drugs July 2020).1 

The report points to a large body of evidence illustrating the efficacy of Safe Consumption Sites (SCS) in achieving a number of health and social objectives, especially when clients are offered access to integrated health and social services, including primary care, treatment and housing.

The report points to the results associated with SCS, including: decreased fatal overdoses, increased contact with health and social services, including substance use treatment services among marginalized clientele, and it notes decreased drug-related litter; decreased high-risk injection practice (e.g. re-using or sharing injection equipment), and decreased injections in public.

All this is good stuff, but then the report reverts to a focus that is unnecessary alarmist, and overtly self-serving.   

The report does little to dissuade one from the cynical view that the barriers to eliminating the root causes are simply not economically beneficial to the systems supported by drug addiction.  

The report states nothing new or insightful, nothing that the public health care practitioners and social workers have not advocated for decades.  

The report implies that police have been the champions of this policy, but it would be difficult for almost anyone to forget that police enforcement of drug laws has been the single largest contributor to the criminalization of thousands of young people, and the incarceration of thousands more. Police services have done almost nothing to mitigate drug abuse; instead criminalized hundreds of thousands of low level drug users, in the process utilizing enforcement to facilitate huge overtime and court pay for anyone involved in drug enforcement.

The report reads as not much more than an after-thought of the societal problems associated with substance abuse; a singular perspective from the one institution, amongst a host of stakeholders having an interest, that is most under assault for systemic bias, racism, and reform. 

The report could have been an opportunity to redefine how policing of substance abusers is going to be better managed with a perspective based on an ethic of care, collaboration, rehabilitation, and community engagement.

Nonetheless, the report should be credited with recognizing that drug use is a public health issue; any alternative view given our understanding of public health today would of course have been imprudent.

The report points to the risk of neighbourhood degradation in areas containing, or close to, SCS. The report notes that this in turn could cause social challenges that could have an impact on policing in the area.  

Although some research indicates that studies have not found any association of SCS with increased criminal activity or with increased initiation or frequency of drug use, recent reporting regarding downtown Toronto suggests that in the area around Dundas, Jarvis and Sherbourne Streets, which houses the former Moss Park SIS [Safe Injection Site] and which is close to other safe Injection Sites (SIS) facilities, has seen an increase in the number of people using drugs or traffickers frequenting the area, and erratic or threatening public behavior by some of these individuals or clients of the SCS. It has also reportedly seen an increase in publicly discarded drug-related paraphernalia and litter, as well as decreased clientele for local businesses. Neighbourhood residents are cited as feeling fearful and expressing criticism towards the police for failing to act to prevent the social disorder and neighbourhood degradation perceived by local residents and business people as stemming from the presence of the SCS.2

The report notes concerns that police may face increased criticism and an erosion of public confidence. Police may also face increased animosity, or decreased tolerance, at the scene of drug-related incidents, raising the possibility of a risk to officer safety.

A cynical view might suggest that the report does not prioritize the safety of the vulnerable, dejected and down and out, but officer safety; perhaps as a preemptive defence to the potential use of force that is likely to be a consequence of police engagement. Fair enough, officer safety is and should always be a concern; however this report is not about the police’s strategic response to officer safety challenges, of which there are myriad evolving concerns; this is about a therapeutic intervention to a public health crisis, a crisis that has taken the lives of 15,393 between January 2016 and December 2019.3  

It is unlikely that addicts, generally, will ever feel comfortable around police officers.  The reasons are varied; first because there is a long legacy of police stigmatizing, arresting, and abusing drug addicts. Secondly, because police officers have often manipulated or coerced street-level drug users to find their way up the supply chain to higher levels of the drug trafficking chain. Third, because and until addicts are healed sufficiently enough to self advocate for their safety and well being, they will remain susceptible and linked to the street culture, a culture of marginalization and neglect within which policing is highly mistrusted.

The report is correct to point out that that there will be an increase in the number of people using drugs or traffickers frequenting the area, erratic or threatening public behavior by some individuals or clients of the SCS, increase in discarded drug-related paraphernalia and litter, as well as decreased clientele for local businesses, and increased fear for personal safety, and increased criticism towards the police for failing to act to prevent the social disorder and neighbourhood degradation perceived by local residents and business people as stemming from the presence of the SCS. The City of Vancouver has been the epicentre with the effects of addiction in plain view on Hastings Avenue in the downtown core, steps from a police station and courthouse. Hastings Avenue has been Canada’s unofficial experiment of decriminalization and the results are in plain view.  There is little note, however, of lessons learned, new approaches to managing these challenges, or best practices.

What the report does not do is look sufficiently upstream, in the words of Doctor Gary Bloch who works with the Inner City Health Associates at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. As Dr. Bloch puts it, we are pulling the same bodies out of the stream again and never looking up stream to stop them from jumping in, in the first place.

Without addressing the issues upstream that lead to mental health and addiction issues, SCS essentially acts as another form of “kettling”, confining large groups of substance users into a small area. Is this really the best solution we can offer? 

Allow me to be cynical. The opioid crisis has taken the lives of 15,393 between January 2016 and December 20194 and hundreds of thousands over the past several decades. By comparison, COVID-19 had resulted in 9,117 deaths (as of August 30, 2020)5 across Canada, and the response has been unprecedented in scope, intensity, and resources.  COVID-19 is a global crisis; it’s bad for the economy. Certainly the lives lost to substance abuse have also impacted the economy; but unlike COVID-19, drug use has funded law-enforcement, the criminal justice system, jails, and entire industries built on the management of drug use. Stopping COVID-19 dead in its tracks is crucial to the health of global economies, but stopping drug addiction would kill millions of jobs.

There is a powerful movement for social reform demanding a reallocation of scarce public resources. Decriminalization can succeed as a viable alternative to criminalization only if sufficient funds are reallocated to mitigate mental illness and addiction in the first place.  

The most self serving part of the report is found in the section titled “budget; an early defence against defunding or reallocation of police resources”. The suggestion that decriminalization would not save millions of dollars allocated to street enforcement units is indefensible and preposterous. There is no more apparent source for the reallocation of funds than the billions of dollars that have been, and continue to be, spent on street level drug enforcement.

A 2019 Law Enforcement Roundtable on Drugs itself found that programs that provide community-based harm-reduction intervention with a less punitive approach to the criminal justice process (arrest, prosecution, and incarceration) through a range of support services to address public health needs, including problematic substance use, result include in improved police-community relations, reduced recidivism rates, “increased cost-savings” and participant empowerment”.6

Our jails have been filled with accused charged for simple possession, many charged multiple times, and many who would have never entered a life of crime were it not for their first charge for simple possession;7 incarcerations that represent thousands of hours of police enforcement, undercover operations, case preparation, exhibit submission, drug analysis requiring sophisticated labs staffed with chemists and technicians, facilities for the storing and security of evidence, and thousands of hours of officer’s testimony.  

And this does not include the judicial costs of prosecutors, judges, clerks, court security, jails, corrections officers, and a dozen other line items. This represents millions of dollars spent on street level enforcement, to the exclusion of major projects targeting high level drug traffickers and international cartels. Although it is difficult to know exactly how much, it has been estimated that criminal justice costs associated with substance abuse are in the billions of dollars.8

As a society, we’re heading in the wrong direction, observes Dr. Bloch: “There is this ongoing erosion of social supports, a flattening of people’s incomes who are living on the lowest economic margins. Our governments are austerity focused, but this means cuts to families and individuals, a move away from government responsibility.” “Physicians,” notes Bloch, “often sit in that top 1% [income bracket].” But that makes physicians perfectly positioned to push forward discussions about addressing poverty: “we’re not acting out of self-interest,” says Bloch, but are instead expanding conversations about wanting a better, healthier world.9

It is of course unfair to suggest that the police have the responsibility or solutions to public health challenges; but policing takes up a major share of tax revenue and it is, therefore, not unfair to challenge policing to share those resources when there may be more effective and efficient solutions to social problems.

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) has advanced a report that seems to be more about its own self-interest. According to the CACP, in a decriminalized environment, frontline policing would likely assume increased responsibility to divert people suffering from substance use disorder into treatment. This is an assumption that is contrary to the findings of the Law Enforcement Round Table on Drugs.

And why not instead pursue a model that creates street counselors with the legitimacy, the experience, expertise, and trust who can refer, treat, and counsel addicts instead of police officers? Why make addiction a public health issue, but keep it chained to the profession with the history, legacy, and culture of enforcement bias?  

The CACP has set the stage by declaring “police must still enforce existing drug legislation, playing a key role in diverting people with substance use disorder to treatment and other social support services. While much of this would likely fall to frontline officers, drug enforcement units would continue to conduct major investigations against drug traffickers and drug trafficking organizations. Such investigations are usually complex and lengthy, requiring personnel and financial resources. In a decriminalized regime, trafficking investigations may become more challenging, as traffickers will likely carry smaller amounts of drugs, complicating the efforts of police to distinguish them from the individuals using the drugs”.10

The CACP has phrased this in a way that perhaps Canadian’s might not know the difference between the majority of drug enforcement that has been street level enforcement, and the highly specialized major investigations (projects) involving drug cartels and international traffickers.

The report also sets the stage for justifying funding by declaring that it will be that treatment facilities are established and operational ahead of decriminalization and have the capacity to take in individuals diverted through police contact. According to the report, this would be imperative since “Diversion procedures that increase administrative or resource requirements on police without providing necessary support are likely to result in lower uptake and reduced impact.”11

Make no mistake, this is not a report about advancing the rehabilitation of mental health and substance abusers upstream; it’s about self-interest. The CACP had an opportunity here to demonstrate a sincerity of commitment to an ethic of care. Instead, what comes across is an ethic of protectionism, not of the public but of their own self-interest.

There were more than 11,500 apparent opioid-related deaths between January 2016 and December 2018.12 More than 10,300 Canadians lost their lives to apparent opioid-related overdose between January 2016 and September 2018, 3,286 during the first nine months of 2018.13 This is the impact that law enforcement and public health must mitigate.

After years of referencing the Netherlands as a model for decriminalization, many today point to the experience of Portugal, which in 2001 did away with criminal penalties for simple possession and consumption of illicit drugs. The Netherlands is no longer the model for decriminalization or legalization, where conditions according to reports by the Dutch police association are now starting to resemble a narco-state with the police unable to combat the emergence of a parallel criminal economy.   

There is no arguing that the war on drugs waged by law enforcement has been more than an utter failure, it has damaged the lives of millions of people who themselves were victims; victims of poverty, of hopelessness, marginalization, and challenges with mental health. So many were in fact patients, unnecessarily prescribed opiates by highly trained physicians, health care experts, and pharmaceutical giants that are before the courts today.

Safe injection sites, decriminalization, and substance abuse treatment and control, only address one side of the problem. Like arguments about supply side versus demand side enforcement, the current public health strategy only looks at the symptoms and not the causes that lead millions of depressed, marginalized, and hopeless to resort to drug use. These are the cliffs upstream from which so many hurl themselves into the currents of substance abuse. These are the precursors of substance abuse that healthy and compassionate societies must mitigate. Decriminalization without mitigating causes of mental illness and depression, loneliness, homelessness, poverty, and abuse, up stream is merely a substitution of bricks and mortar jails with jails of chemicals.

We are at a crossroads to reform, to cease to waste billions of dollars on ineffective enforcement, to reassess systemic models for effective public health, and directing tax dollars wisely. Policymakers, police service boards, politicians, public health officials, and stakeholders need to look through the curtains of self-interest and protectionism, and as far upstream as possible if we are to get this right.


Anil Anand is a Research Associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. Anil served as a police officer for 29 years; during his career some of his assignments included divisional officer, undercover narcotics officer, and intelligence officer. He has worked in Professional Standards, Business Intelligence, Corporate Communications, the Ipperwash Inquiry (judicial public inquiry), and Interpol.



  1. Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. “Findings and recommendations report
  2. Ibid
  3. Government of Canada. “Opioid-related harms in Canada Published: (June 2020)”, Accessed: August 31, 2020
  4. Ibid
  5. Government of Canada. “Corona virus disease (COVID-19): Outbreak update” Accessed: August 31, 2020
  6. Public Safety Canada. “Public Safety Canada 2019 Law Enforcement Roudtable on Drugs”
  7. In 2017, there were 90,625 drug arrests across Canada (42% were for cannabis possession alone). In 2017, there were 2,219 heroin possession arrests in Canada compared to 2010 when there were 464 heroin arrests charges.  In 2017, there were 1,523 methamphetamines possession arrests. Boyd S. Drug use, arrests, policing, and imprisonment in Canada and BC, 2015-2016, 2018. Accessed: August 31, 2020
  8. Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction. Canadian Substance Use Costs and Harms 2007–2014,, Accessed: August 31, 2020
  9. De Leeuw, Sarah. “Physician activism and prescribing against poverty”, Canadian Family Physician, Vol. 62, April 2016, Accessed: August 31, 2020
  10. Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. “Findings and recommendations report -Decriminalization for Simple Possession of Illicit Drugs: Exploring Impacts on Public Safety & Policing Special Purpose Committee on the Decriminalization of Illicit Drugs July 2020″
  11. Ibid.
  12. Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction. Accessed: August 30, 2020
  13. Public Health Agency of Canada. “Updated Numbers on Opioid-Related Overdose Deaths in Canada”, 2019-06-04, August 31, 2020


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