Despite the concerns expressed by Canada’s police chiefs and others, it appears that the federal government’s plan to legalize marijuana will move forward over the coming months.  

Although many – including me, support “decriminalizing” as opposed to the current direction of “legalizing” the possession of small quantities of pot, (see my article Op-Ed: Decriminalization versus legalization of pot October 5th, 2015) where others prefer to not change the laws at all, there are many who strongly favour the legalization agenda.

North America has been watching the Colorado pot legalization initiative with baited-breath to determine whether or not it will be the unmitigated disaster many predicted, or the panacea that an equal number of pro-marijuana voices promised.  The jury is still out however, as both sides offer strong arguments – depending on their specific slant, but there has yet to be a comprehensive and unbiased study on the matter. Time will tell.

Similar battle-lines are currently being drawn over the call by Toronto's Medical Officer of Health for 3 so-called “safe injection” sites in the city of Toronto.  The arguments both pro and con all seem quite valid at face value.

What is a safe-injection site??

It is a “BYOB” of sorts, whereby users bring their own illegal drugs through the streets and into the “safer” facility – as opposed to an alley, where they can inject those illegal drugs into their bodies by using clean needles under some element of professional supervision.  The premise is “Harm Reduction” and reportedly results in less user-infections like HIV and Hepatitis C, as well as overdoses and deaths, in jurisdictions like Vancouver, Sydney Australia and some European cities.  Obviously that is a good thing for those hell-bent on destroying their lives by injecting drugs into their veins that may well eventually kill them.  But this does not prevent people from buying, using, selling and walking the streets carrying dangerous and illegal drugs.

Those opposed to these sites claim they become a gathering point for addicts, traffickers and other criminals, turning the general area into a no-go zone for those not engaged in the drug world or related criminal activity.

Vancouver currently has 2 such sites.  One, called “InSite” was opened 13 years ago, the second more recently.  I walked through the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver where InSite is located several years ago with some policing colleagues.  Spaced out addicts and others in various states of undress, were laying and loitering on sidewalks, boulevards and in allies, buying, selling, using and harassing passersby.  It was not a nice place to be.  It seemed totally out of control to me.  An officer then assigned to that area full-time told me horror stories of people from all walks of life coming there to purchase and use narcotics as well as the related crime occurring – like assaults, robberies and thefts.  I couldn’t believe that as Canadians we could allow this complete circus to continue.  I have never seen such a strip of depravity in any other Canadian city.

I drove by it again just over a year ago while in Vancouver, which is generally a beautiful and safe city and one I love to visit.  I still saw people everywhere along that stretch of the Hastings Street corridor. It is quite a trendy street in other areas of the city, but that particular stretch looks like a zombie apocalypse when you pass it.

Vancouver Police assigned many additional officers to that area – 90 initially, with somewhat less currently.  What is the cost of that?  How would such a resource need impact cities like Toronto and Ottawa amid growing concerns by taxpayers and elected officials over the rising cost of policing? 

There are many related programs that can occur in conjunction with safe-injection sites or without.  Needle exchanges – which have been happening in Toronto for years; medical/addiction counselling/support; education; street outreach; collaborative efforts between social services, health professionals and police; as well as enforcement, can all continue to take place without creating these sites.

Lives destroyed through addictions and drug overdose deaths are quite concerning and tragic for affected families.  Reports from the Vancouver experience indicate that lives have been saved as a result.  But let’s be frank: people have an option – they can choose to NOT use drugs.  Should the residents, shopkeepers and visitors in the community surrounding such a facility be negatively affected because of the personal decisions of drug users?

This will be a challenging decision for municipalities considering such action.  It shouldn’t be such a difficult choice for those pondering the use of narcotics like cocaine, speed or heroin however, but people of all social statuses apparently struggle with it.  Nevertheless once they strike off down that path, it is extremely tough to turn around.  But they themselves have made the personal decision that will impact at least, and at worst – take their lives.

There has to be a line in the sand somewhere in terms of right and wrong social experiments.  Although society should do all they can to help these souls return to a healthy life style, is allowing them a haven to further their habit the answer? 

Time will tell.

Chris Lewis served as Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police from 2010 until he retired in 2014. He can be seen regularly on CTV and CP24 giving his opinion as a public safety analyst.