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In Canada, simple possession is defined as possession of a controlled substance for personal use only. While simple possession is still considered a criminal offence, in recent years the ongoing drug overdose crisis, the global pandemic and the stigma associated with people who use drugs has prompted urgent calls for drug reforms from governments, policymakers and the public. In 2022, Health Canada granted British Columbia a three-year exemption for the decriminalization of small amounts of certain drugs for personal use among adults. The exemption begins on January 31, 2023.

This historic reform comes amid mounting support for alternatives to policing in illegal drug markets. The Canadian Chiefs of Police, the Government of B.C. and the City of Vancouver have supported formally decriminalizing simple possession citing substance use as a public health issue, not a criminal one.

The reforms also take place amid concerning inconsistencies in drug enforcement practices, according to Simon Fraser University (SFU) School of Criminology professor Alissa Greer. Greer researches drug policy, decriminalization and policing, and health equity using qualitative, community-engaged research methods. She has worked closely with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research for over 15 years and the B.C. Centre for Disease Control for over five years. She was recently awarded a Michael Smith Health Research B.C. Scholar Award to examine drug policies that provide alternatives to criminal penalties for drug use, including decriminalization.

Her recent study, Simple possession as a 'tool': Drug law enforcement practices among police officers in the context of depenalization in British Columbia, Canada suggests that the ‘law of the books’ can differ from the ‘law on the streets’ due to evolving sociolegal contexts. This work raises concerns for how B.C.’s new decriminalization policy may play out in everyday policing (to view the article, sign in with SFU ID).

Greer and her research team conducted in-depth interviews with 16 police officers in nine jurisdictions across the province to learn about their experiences interpreting and applying simple drug possession laws. The study was conducted in 2021, prior to the B.C. personal use exemption. However, drug enforcement practices already appeared to be creating local models of depenalization that relied on police discretion.

Evidence suggests police officers value agency in using simple possession as a ‘tool’ for other actions, such as investigating more serious offences. However, as Greer’s research shows, police discretion appeared to be inconsistently and inequitably applied, and that the ‘tool’ of simple possession was being used in ways for which it was not intended. In addition, whether or not simple possession was enforced varied from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. More rural areas were tougher on people in possession of drugs than in urban settings like Vancouver.

Greer suggests that a clearer approach to decriminalization would be to remove the element of police discretion from personal drug possession altogether. She also recommends that future reforms need to consider the many ways drug policies play out in day-to-day policing and how this impacts people in the community—especially those who are marginalized.

We spoke with professor Greer about her research.

Your study investigated how simple possession could be used as a 'tool' for pursuing more serious charges, for example using charges against people to gather information on larger drug trafficking cases. Tell us more about how this is applied in practice—and why it might be applied inconsistently.

The police officers we interviewed talked about targeting people regularly using drugs and street-level dealers who could give them information about larger criminal organizations. Officers would leverage simple possession charges to gain information. They also used simple possession as a 'tool' for other things, such as moving people out of doorways or off the street. These actions disproportionately and negatively impacted more marginalized people who use drugs—particularly people visible in the community such as those who are homeless.

Since the article was published, the federal government granted B.C. a three-year exemption to decriminalize possession of some illegal drugs for personal use. Is decriminalization the best course of action amidst the crisis of the poisoned drug supply? What else needs to happen?

Initially, the provincial and federal government framed B.C.’s decriminalization model as a way to address the overdose crisis. I have major concerns that it can do that. Decriminalization is not a health system intervention on its own and does not change the illegal and toxic drug supply, which is the key factor driving this health emergency in B.C. Only a regulated source of drugs or ‘safe supply’ can offer alternatives to the toxic drug supply. However, decriminalization is an excellent step in the right direction. It reframes the issue, will hopefully reduce stigma and criminalization for people who use drugs in the province. I wrote about the differences between decriminalization and regulation, and their ability to address the overdose crisis, recently in an article for The Conversation.

In light of your 2020 study, how might the findings apply to decriminalization in B.C. in the future? What’s next in this line of research?

One thing I have learned is that our laws are not always applied or understood as they are intended. It is important to continue monitoring drug law enforcement in B.C. following the implementation of decriminalization in January 2023. Understanding how the law is interpreted and used day-to-day among police officers may highlight implementation gaps, as well as inequities that we can then address. It will be interesting to see if police officers use any other ‘tools,’ or if B.C.’s decriminalization model actually reduces policing in our communities. This is the focus of my research for the next five years, as a recipient of the Michael Smith Health Research B.C. Scholar Award. I will be examining drug policies that provide alternatives to criminal penalties for drug use, including decriminalization. At the end of the day, the primary aim of decriminalization should be to reduce criminal penalties and role of the criminal justice system in the lives of people who use drugs.

For more read: Decriminalizing drug use is a necessary step, but it won’t end the opioid overdose crisis in the Conversation Canada.

SFU's Scholarly Impact of the Week series does not reflect the opinions or viewpoints of the university, but those of the scholars. The timing of articles in the series is chosen weeks or months in advance, based on a published set of criteria. Any correspondence with university or world events at the time of publication is purely coincidental.

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