Drug decriminalization isn't radical, it's already here in the Thompson-Okanagan | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Drug decriminalization isn't radical, it's already here in the Thompson-Okanagan

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February 25, 2021 - 7:00 AM

On the same day Kelowna RCMP Supt. Kara Triance told her city's council that she supported the decriminalization of illicit drugs for personal possession, separately City of Vernon councillor Kelly Fehr was proposing that his council lobby the federal government for the same thing.

The two public figures add their names to a list of others calling for decriminalization that includes the City of Vancouver, the provincial government, as well as the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.

While the move may sound radical to some, a de facto form of decriminalization of illicit drugs already exists.

According to a report by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, some police services in Canada haven't laid possession-only charges for a number of years.

And the Chiefs of Police report appears to confirm what anyone working within the criminal justice system may already know.

Flick through the dockets of local courthouses in Kamloops, Kelowna, Penticton or Vernon courthouses and it's very rare – and possibly non-existent – to see individuals charged purely with simple possession of illicit drugs.

Of the roughly 90 individuals scheduled to appear in court in Kelowna or Vernon Feb. 24, not a single person is facing charges simply for the possession of illicit drugs. In fact, only one individual is in court for possession of a controlled substance, and that’s tacked onto a dozen other charges they are also facing.

Vernon North Okanagan RCMP Const. Chris Terleski said it's not police policy not to forward recommendations to the Crown for small amounts of illicit drugs, and that each case is assessed on its own merits.

He said that ultimately the determination of whether charges are approved rests solely with the Crown.

And one aspect of this de facto decriminalization is coming from those responsible for prosecuting drug-related matters.

A directive issued in August 2020 by the Public Prosecution Service of Canada declared that federal prosecutors should only criminally prosecute the most serious drug possession offences.

The directive asks prosecutors to pursue “suitable alternative measures” instead of criminally prosecuting people for simple drug possession.

The guidelines state that criminal prosecution for possessing drugs "should generally be reserved for the most serious manifestations of the offence” and used if “a person caught in possession of an illegal drug was engaged in conduct that could endanger the health or safety of others.”

The move by the Public Prosecution Service came shortly after the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police put its support behind the decriminalization of illicit drugs for personal possession.

Fehr wants Vernon council to add its voice in the call for decriminalization.

“It’s almost in practice already so why not move forward with it?” he said.

On Feb. 22 Fehr presented a notice of motion to Vernon council asking it to go further by asking the federal government to declare the overdose crisis a national public health emergency as well as to develop a comprehensive pan-Canadian overdose action plan, and regulate the safe supply of pharmaceutical alternatives to toxic street drugs, among other things.

“We're calling this an overdose pandemic but it's a poisoned drug supply pandemic is what's going on, people are deliberately poisoning the drug supply and killing people across our nation,” Fehr said.

The Vernon councillor argues that decriminalizing illicit drugs for personal possession reduces the stigma surrounding addiction and allows people greater access to get help.

The councillor reiterates the move is part of a multi-pronged approach and does not let those who deal drugs off the hook.

"I firmly believe we need to allocate the appropriate resources to keep people alive and to reduce the harmful impact to the uses and their families and the community in general,” he said.

And while Fehr’s idea has backing from different levels of government, law enforcement and prosecutors, getting it past Vernon council is another matter.

“I think it would be a very divided vote, (that) would be my gut feeling,” he said.

Whether Fehr's motion makes it through Vernon council remains to be seen, as does the question of why, if we already have de facto decriminalization, doesn't the federal government make it official?

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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