Lauren Boothby

April 12, 2022

-Edmonton Journal


Edmonton is one step closer to decriminalizing drugs, with councillors pursuing an exemption to federal rules on personal possession of illicit substances in hopes of curbing drug poisoning deaths.

Police, Alberta Health Services and Alberta Health, public health and medical experts, people with lived experience, family and patient advocates, and Indigenous peoples, among others, will be invited to weigh in on how Edmonton can reduce drug poisoning deaths and go after decriminalization, should the efforts be given council’s final stamp of approval. Advocating for the provincial and federal governments to act on the drug poisoning crisis — including on safe supply, safe consumption sites, treatment and supportive housing — is also part of the plan. City staff would come back next year with results.

Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, who pushed for these changes during a committee meeting on Monday, said Alberta is in the midst of a crisis that demands action.

“We have a crisis in our streets. We have a crisis in our homes, where Edmontonians are dying because of the drug poisoning and the addictions crisis that we have,” he told media Monday afternoon. “There’s a lot of pain out there, there’s a lot of trauma caused by this, and the suffering among families and the community.”

Last year, 674 Edmontonians died of accidental drug poisonings. In January, 55 more people died.

Sohi said he’s not advocating for legalizing drugs or trafficking, but rather on ending rules around personal possession because of the crisis. He said 85 per cent of drug possession charges in Edmonton stem from personal use, and ending this would free up police resources.

Although Sohi wants to see action faster, the application is a lengthy process. In the meantime, the city is working on advocating for other supports, like mental health, recovery, and for safe supply, Sohi said.

During the meeting, Coun. Karen Principe asked Dr. Ginetta Salvalaggio of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association if decriminalization would lead to more people using drugs out in the open, saying this is something she’s seen. Salvalaggio said there isn’t evidence open drug use increased in places where decriminalization was brought in.

Petra Schulz, with Moms Stop the Harm, whose son Danny died of fentanyl poisoning in 2014, said others like him are dying because of the stigma and fear of the consequences of disclosure, like getting a criminal record.

“We need to keep them safe. We need them to feel safe to reach out for help, but fear and stigma prevent that,” she said. “No wonder people try everything in their power to hide their use, often with tragic consequences.”

Schulz and other speakers acknowledged decriminalization isn’t a silver bullet. But, they argued, it’s one tool to address the drug-poisoning crisis, which needs to be dealt with as a public health issue, not a crime.

“What we’re doing right now is an abysmal failure, unless you measure success by the number of funerals families have to arrange,” she said.

Euan Thompson with Each+Every: Business for Harm Reduction, said Edmonton is seeing some of the highest rates of drug poisonings in Boyle McCauley, higher than even Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

If the city proceeds with this, he warned councillors not to act as Vancouver did, which he said “tokenized” the involvement of people who use drugs by bringing them in at the last minute, leaving that city with policies that weren’t as effective.