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Cambridge mayor calls on province to make drug rehab involuntary for some

Newly elected Cambridge Mayor Jan Liggett says she'll call on the province to change the criminal code to make it easier to send drug users to court mandated rehab
The Waterloo Region Courthouse on Frederick Street in Kitchener.

Cambridge could be the catalyst that brings changes to the criminal code and the way those experiencing drug addiction are handled by the law. 

The city's newly elected mayor, Jan Liggett, is gathering support from local politicians and her colleagues at the Ontario Big City Mayors (OBCM) to crack down on drug use and enforce court mandated rehab. 

“At this time there are insufficient rehab and detox beds in the province for those having decision making abilities to enter rehab,” said Liggett. “Judges currently know this, so when they have repeat offenders there are only two options open, punishment by jailing or release back onto the streets to keep reoffending.”

Liggett thinks the current way of handling these situations is not beneficial to the offender or the community.

Working with her partners at OBCM, they will advocate for the province to find solutions for chronic homelessness, mental health, safety and addictions while highlighting the impacts this crisis is having on the health and well-being of communities. 

One of the ways she proposes to do this is through court ordered rehab. This would allow a judge to send an individual convicted of a drug related crime to a rehabilitation centre against their will.

Currently, there are pathways for individuals going through the court system to lessen their sentence by choosing to voluntarily go to a rehab centre, but the choice remains up to the defendant. 

“Mental health and rehab facilities to be mandated through the judicial system creates an opportunity for diversion from jail but also the choice allows for consequences of actions,” said Liggett. 

One of these voluntary options is Stonehenge in Guelph. They take individuals coming from federal and provincial corrections as well as people referring themselves through the community. People coming from the courts pass through a system known as Drug Treatment Court (DTC).

This is a unique substance abuse intervention model that operates within the criminal justice system.

DTCs provide judicially-supervised treatment in lieu of incarcerating individuals who have a substance use problem that is related to their criminal activities. 

The executive director of Stonehenge, Kristin Kerr, thinks going to a rehab center has to remain a choice for it to be effective. 

“Everything about our programs, everything about addiction treatment is voluntary,” said Kerr. “That's done very intentionally, because someone needs to be ready and motivated to make changes in order for them to get help and to make an impact.”

Kerr wants to make it clear that those suffering from drug addiction are suffering from a health issue. What that means is that there are a variety of treatments that are both helpful and needed to support someone with that particular health issue. There is not only one solution, she noted. 

“I think sometimes there is a narrative that if we just send someone and make them go to residential treatment, they will come out, fixed, cured and that's not at all how things work,” said Kerr. “It wouldn't work that way with any other health issue and it doesn't work that way with addiction.” 

Liggett is also receiving support from local politicians. Former Cambridge mayor and current regional councillor for the city, Doug Craig is on board with Liggett’s plan if it means getting tough on drug use in the city. 

“We have a crisis in Cambridge with addiction, there's no question about it,” said Craig. “We need different tools to start solving these issues, because right now, we have no tools to start helping people the way we ought to.” 

While Craig acknowledges the criticism behind forcing people into rehab, he agrees with Liggett and wants to see this mandated and a potential change in the criminal code. 

“We gotta go with something stronger,” added Craig. 

One of the ways Liggett would like to mandate rehab is by petitioning the Ford government to change the criminal code. This would give the courts more power and more options to send convicted individuals to detox centers. 

This could require police to make more drug related arrests, a move that former WRPS chief of police, Bryan Larkin, was strongly against.

For years, Larkin called for a modernization of drug policy including steps to decriminalization. 

In a Jan. 2022, police board meeting, Larkin addressed addiction issues across the region and said the current system is not working. Instead of doubling down on drug related arrests, he wanted to address the root causes of addiction. 

Larkin's vision for policing this issue would balance the community’s needs and concerns for safety, while also creating ways for police to help get people out of the court system and into the health care system. 

“The judicial system is not the answer for somebody facing an addiction issue,” Larkin said at the time. 

Liggett said former OBCM chair, Cam Guthrie, will start bringing their concerns, as well as those from other municipalities, to the province starting as soon as this week. 

Joe McGinty

About the Author: Joe McGinty

Joe McGinty is a multimedia journalist who covers local news in the Cambridge area. He is a graduate of Conestoga College and began his career as a freelance journalist at CambridgeToday before joining full time.
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