Youth Experiences Project: Police discretion with youth who use illicit substances

Funding bodies: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)

Police discretion is an officer’s authority to decide how and when to enforce the law. Such discretion can have beneficial outcomes, allowing for more effective uses of scarce resources, proper exercise of professional judgment, fewer referrals to court for non-violent offences and more positive interactions with the public.  Alternatively, discretion can be seen as unfair, (based on factors such as race and ethnicity, socio-economic status, homelessness, age, sexuality and gender) and may create poor police-community relations.

The purpose of this research, also known as the "Police discretion with high risk substance using youth" grant, is to learn more about interactions between the police and substance using youth 16-30 and how these experiences affect their lives. We began the research proposal to learn more about youths’ circumstances and experiences with the police in regard to two major issues: (1) street checks, the practice of stopping, questioning and documenting (i.e. carding) individuals when no particular offense is being investigated, and (2) police discretion on whether to charge individuals caught for possession of drugs. Scott Macdonald (CISUR), the principal investigator and co-investigators from UVic, UFV, U of T and Queens were interested in knowing more about what influences decisions by police on whether and how to intervene with substance using youth. However, the research team had many other questions that ranged from youths’ perceptions of police and procedural justice, social support, stigma and discrimination, the actual encounters youth had with police, overdose, normalization of marijuana and youths’ recommendations on improving relationships between youth who use illicit substances and police.

The project was conducted in three communities - Victoria, Chilliwack and Prince George.  In each community, we recruited 150 youth, aged 16-30, (100 who had used an illicit drug weekly in the past 6 months (including marijuana) and 50 who had not), to take part in an interview-led questionnaire. Respondent Driven Sampling (RDS) was used to recruit participants, where each youth who completed a questionnaire was given 5 coupons to hand out in their network. Youth received $5 if the coupon came back to the research team.

38 youth who completed the questionnaire were contacted and agreed to take part in an additional qualitative interview. We asked them to talk more about their specific encounters with police and how these had affected their perceptions and level of trust around police, the specific and local context within their communities of police and substance use, including the ways youth have experienced discrimination. The team also asked about experiences with overdose and their recommendations to improve relationships between police, youth and people who use drugs.

This research will produce valuable information that can be applied to the development of more consistent standards for how police interact with youth who use substances. We hope this research will be of interest to both local communities, policy-makers and the police. For those who work with substance-using youth, this research will give local, relevant and current information that may help them to better support youth in ways that actually work for and with them.

Researchers