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Examining drug law enforcement practices in the context of an evolving drug policy environment is critical for informing policy reforms and practices as they unfold. In this study, we aimed to examine police officer accounts of drug law enforcement practices, including officer use of discretion in simple possession cases, within the sociolegal context in British Columbia, Canada. Using a qualitative approach, we conducted a thematic analysis of interviews with sixteen police officers across nine jurisdictions in the province. The analysis provided insights into police officers' recent experiences enforcing drug laws. Two major themes and several subthemes are presented which relate to drug law enforcement practices within the context of depenalization. Officers' experiences and views towards simple possession enforcement suggested a model of de facto depenalization in the province, although enforcement practices including police discretion were inconsistent across officers and jurisdictions. Prosecutorial discretion was a major factor that shaped officers' enforcement practices. While officers reported not pursuing simple possession offences, many used simple possession charges as a 'tool' to do investigations, pursue other charges, and to promote social order. This study provides unique insights into drug law enforcement in an evolving sociolegal context, highlighting the potential inconsistencies, inequities, and harms that may arise from relying on a model of depenalization. In the face of drug law reforms both in Canada and elsewhere, these findings have important implications regarding the design and implementation of alternatives, such as depenalization, decriminalization, and diversion programs, which may potentially rely on, remove, and/or enhance police discretion. Where drug possession is formally decriminalized, police officers may need alternative enforcement 'tools' to support their work moving forward. Copyright © 2021 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.


Alissa Greer, Naomi Zakimi, Amanda Butler, Sarah Ferencz. Simple possession as a 'tool': Drug law enforcement practices among police officers in the context of depenalization in British Columbia, Canada. The International journal on drug policy. 2022 Jan;99:103471

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PMID: 34600414

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