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Jail drug users so they can access treatment programs, mayor suggests

The Board of Police Commissioners discussed the issue of drugs and enforcement during its recent meeting.
Moose Jaw police car face left

The Moose Jaw Police Service’s efforts with drug enforcement concern Mayor Clive Tolley, who believes officers should be jailing users so they can access treatment programs.

Tolley, a member of the Board of Police Commissioners, raised the issue at the board’s Jan. 16 meeting while discussing total crime statistics for 2022. 

The data for drugs showed that for 2022 versus 2021:

  • Cocaine: 6 / 7
  • Marijuana: 9 / 15
  • Methamphetamine: 11 / 31
  • Other CDSA drugs: 11 / 19
  • Total: 37 / 72

In the past, police drug enforcement activities focused on the users instead of the sellers and distributors, said Tolley. Law enforcement jailed people partly to remove them from their source and connect them with a social worker to find treatment. 

The mayor wondered what was happening in the police industry today for that approach to have changed. He also wondered if the jails were too full and were prompting officers to pursue the salespeople of illicit substances.

“Is the system failing us a little bit just because we don’t have the volume to deal with these people? I’m just kind of curious because we have very few people using that are busted,” Tolley added. “As a former social worker, I thought at the time that (jailing them) wasn’t a bad strategy.” 

Most drug busts — charges for simple possession — occur when police find illegal substances on people whom they’ve arrested for other issues, said Chief Rick Bourassa. Members use discretion about whether to lay charges, although the agency will attempt to help people find addiction support.

“One of the other issues around the simple possession is custodial interventions are really not something the police would use, so arresting and detaining somebody,” he continued. 

If police lay charges, they would then release the person and attempt to provide interventions through drug treatment court or the alternative measures program, Bourassa added.

“We’ve got an epidemic going on in terms of use, but very few charges. And I’m trying to understand so I can explain that other people,” said Tolley, noting residents ask him why there aren’t more drug busts if users are going around checking businesses for unlocked doors. 

Some people sent to a provincial correctional centre can still acquire drugs there, while on-site treatment programs fail because substances can still be smuggled in, he added. He also thought the drug statistics looked low compared to the number of known street users.

“It’s complex,” said Bourassa. “Many of our charges used to be for simple possession of cannabis, and that is now no longer (illegal in small amounts). We’ve seen a natural reduction in that.”

Most times when police encounter drug users, they do not have a substance on them even if they’ve used it, he continued. Officers have no authority to search people — even if they have drugs in their pocket — and need hard evidence to make an arrest. 

While police know there are many drug users in the community, members’ preference is to help them find alternative supports instead of laying charges, added Bourassa.

It’s apparent nationally and internationally that addiction is a health issue and not a justice issue, while some countries have decided to decriminalize small amounts of drugs, said board chair Commissioner Mary Lee Booth, noting it’s important to discuss this issue to destigmatize drug use.

Police chiefs provincially and nationally are “pretty clear” that they want to see small amounts decriminalized, but with supports in place first, said Bourassa, acknowledging that this is a controversial issue. He noted that the political will must be there for changes to happen.

The next police board meeting is Thursday, Feb. 9. 

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