The Yukon RCMP is recommending the Yukon decriminalize up to one gram of hard drugs — and no more — while still allowing for drug seizures, if the territory goes ahead with a decriminalization regime.
“Capping the amount to one gram will mitigate social trafficking, the increasing availability of illicit drugs in the territory and the ability of organized crime to sidestep authorities,” reads an Aug. 20 written statement from RCMP Supt. Chan (Dak) Dara in response to the News’ questions.
Dara said the Yukon RCMP wants to continue confiscating small quantities of illicit drugs, even if the amount is decriminalized.
“That said, the Yukon RCMP fully supports the implementation of a safe supply of pharmaceutical-grade drugs and the expanded use of safe consumption sites and testing sites.”
The Yukon government is weighing the pros and cons of decriminalizing the possession of some currently illegal drugs. A ministerial committee has been established on the matter.
“The government of Yukon, with all of our partners, including the federal government, continues to investigate the impacts [and] benefits of requesting an exemption to remove criminal penalties for people who possess certain substances,” reads an Aug. 16 statement from Health and Social Services Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee.
“The work is ongoing in this investigation and no decisions have been made.”
Specific details, such as which substances might be exempted, are not available.
“We are also continuing to closely watch what is happening with British Columbia’s decriminalization implementation plan,” reads the minister’s statement.
For three years, starting on Jan. 31, 2023, British Columbia will be removing criminal penalties for people who possess a small amount of certain illicit substances for personal use under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. It is the first province in Canada to get an exemption from Health Canada on this front.
The B.C. exemption covers opioids (including heroin, morphine and fentanyl), cocaine (including crack and powder cocaine), methamphetamine and ecstasy.
This exemption does not translate into legalization in the southern province.
While these substances remain illegal in B.C., adults who have 2.5 grams or less of the certain illicit substances for personal use will no longer be arrested, charged or have their drugs seized, according to a May 31 news release. Instead, police are expected to offer information on available health and social supports and help with referrals when requested.
The Yukon police position
In the police statement, Dara said commanding officer Scott Sheppard and the Yukon RCMP do not believe the Yukon should follow in British Columbia’s exact footsteps when it comes to decriminalizing up to a cumulative of 2.5 grams of hard drugs that are also not subject to seizure by authorities.
“We believe that is not the direction the Yukon should follow as our realities in the territory are significantly different from that of B.C.,” Dara said.
“The Yukon is remote; it has a small, but very vulnerable population; it does not have the same levels of support services; and, as the last two years have shown us, Yukon ranked amongst the highest in the country for overdose deaths per capita. Drug abuse has an asymmetrical impact on communities in the North.”
Dara said the police force wants to be allowed to continue taking away illicit drugs, while having the ability to divert people who use hard drugs to a safe supply or other timely support services.
“As Yukoners, we cannot allow a person to walk away with a potentially deadly dose of illicit drugs and, at all cost, we must continue to discourage the introduction of illicit opioids and other hard drugs to new people,” Dara said.
Dara said that in “almost all cases” the Yukon RCMP has not been charging people who use drugs unless the person was involved in other criminal offenses.
Since April 2018, in the “overwhelming majority” of the 47 cases in which a simple possession charge was pursued, the simple possession charges were incidental to an investigation into other offenses such as impaired driving, assault, mischief and drug trafficking. That compares to the Yukon RCMP investigating more than 620 drug trafficking offenses during that same period.
Dara cited his colleague Sheppard in saying that allowing one person to carry 2.5 grams of fentanyl in Mayo, where there is no substance abuse service available, could have major effect on the community. The 2.5 grams could provide doses for up to 25 people.
“The front-line experience of our police officers in the Yukon demonstrate that the majority of hard drug users do not carry over a gram at a time,” Dara said.
Dara wonders if Yukoners, as opposed to the police, are ready for this change.
“As Yukoners, we should not to rush in and decriminalize hard drugs without putting the appropriate support services in place (for example safe supply, expanded safe consumption sites, etc.), and having the proper legislation to govern the initiative.”
“Although we have expressed our position on the matter, we will adapt to the wishes of society and any new legislation that comes with it.”
While Sheppard and the police force support decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of certain hard drugs as part of a broader approach to divert people with drug addictions away from the criminal justice system, Dara said they do not support the outright legalization of the same.
RCMP reporting to ministerial advisory committee
In an interview following the “mental wellness” summit, the Yukon’s Health and Social Services Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee told the News in February that there will be a focus group examining the potential viability for decriminalizing currently illicit drugs in the territory. More details about the substance use health emergency ministerial advisory committee were released to the News in April.
According to cabinet communications, that group held its second meeting, with a focus on decriminalization, on Aug. 11.
The committee heard presentations about decriminalization from Dara, the RCMP officer in charge of criminal operations; Yukon MP Brendan Hanley; chief federal prosecutor Jennifer Grandy of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada’s Yukon regional office; Brontë Renwick-Shields, the executive director of Blood Ties Four Directions; and mental wellness and substance use services director Cameron Grandy with the department of Health and Social Services.
The News reached out to three of the five presenters.
Hanley said he will be the direct liaison for federal support on this matter. Hanley has expressed interest in the Yukon exploring how decriminalization might work for the territory in terms of what it might mean to have an exemption policy.
Renwick-Shields was not available for an interview by press time.
The committee is made up of chiefs and mayors, as well as Education Minister Jeanie McLean and McPhee.
In an Aug. 9 statement from cabinet communications, the committee’s purpose is “to encourage open dialogue and give attendees the chance to share ideas and feedback, as well as provide the same opportunity to the ministers.”
“Questions and ideas raised include how to better serve communities, engage youth and mitigate people who sell drugs.”
The territorial government said it is also pressing forward on discussing a coordinated national response to removing barriers and expanding access to a safer supply of opioids and related drugs.
Contact Dana Hatherly at firstname.lastname@example.org