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Buckle Up/Sober Up: Alternatives to Criminalizing Public Intoxication

With the Stampede around the corner, Calgarians and visitors from around are buckling up for the ‘Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth’. Stampede festivities will abound, and with them, alcohol consumption and public intoxication.

It may be surprising to some of us to know that public intoxication is a criminal offence in Canada. Historically, Western societies have considered public intoxication as a crime, based on the idea that those found drunk in public can be harmful — to themselves, to the people around them, and to the social values of the community.

What is of note here is that the criminalization of public intoxication does not affect all demographics equally: Those who are socially marginalized and experiencing homelessness have a higher likelihood to have interactions with police and the justice system, which includes issues surrounding public intoxication. This is particularly evident in the over-representation of Aboriginal people amongst those experiencing homelessness and incarceration, for example.

To address public intoxication, sobering centres have emerged as an alternative to criminalization across Canadian, U.S., Australian and European communities. There are examples of sobering centre facilities in Toronto, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Victoria, Surrey, Inuvik, Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa – though no comprehensive listing was found.

Instead of routinely arresting those found drunk in public, sobering centres give them a place to ‘sleep it off’. Sobering centres also provide an opportunity to get help for other issues that may be contributing to the situation that put someone there in the first place.

The main objectives of sobering centres are to give people a safe place to sober up from the effects of alcohol or drugs and divert people from police custody: evidence indicates that sobering centres are largely effective in both of these regards.

Research shows the facilities lead to decreases in police lockups, making the case that the availability of this alternative has had positive impact on police custody responses to intoxication. Overall, the facilities have proved to be safer alternatives to police custody. Consistent evidence suggests these facilities reduce emergency health services and police use; they can also be important facilitators for vulnerable clients to connect to treatment and long terms housing.


A Drug and Alcohol Office of Western Australia study noted that between 1992 and 2005, the number of police detentions of intoxicated persons declined by 84 per cent from 12,346 in 1992 to 1,972 in 2005.


An evaluation of the San Francisco Sobering Center reports that up to 29,000 encounters inappropriate for emergency services were avoided by diverting chronic-inebriate care away from the ER into the centre.


In the U.K., the evaluation of the Addiction Treatment Centre in Cardiff suggests that when the centre is open, there are statistically fewer alcohol and assault-related attendances in emergency departments, suggesting that the pilot successfully diverted health-service use.


Returning to Calgary, a local sobering centre is operated by Alpha House. Through its Downtown Outreach Addiction Partnership (DOAP), Alpha House actively works to divert publicly intoxicated people from law-enforcement responses by bringing them into the shelter, or finding other alternatives to incarceration.


In Alpha House’s sobering centre, staff support clients to address addiction or mental health issues they might be struggling with and, if appropriate, to assist them in finding secure housing. Here, Alpha House’s approach is to help clients secure appropriate housing in community or in dedicated buildings, with ongoing intensive supports.


During a twelve-month assessment period, an evaluation of Alpha House’s housing programs show annualized decreases compared to the 12-month average prior to their intake into the programs:

  • 50.1% decrease in average number of days that clients were hospitalized.
  • 62.6% decrease in the number of times clients were hospitalized.
  • 50% decrease in number of times clients used emergency medical services.
  • 42.4 % decrease in the number of times clients used an emergency room.
  • 92.7% decrease in the average number of days clients spent in jail.
  • 70.8% decrease in the number of interactions with police.


Alpha House’s programs provide an important alternative to divert people facing the difficult personal circumstances that might cause them to be publicly intoxicated, into a program where they can access medical support, addiction and recovery programs. We may never eliminate public intoxication, but if our goal in criminalizing it has been to reduce harm to the individual and those around him or her, the sobering-centre approach appears to provide a much more effective response.

Sobering centres will not and should not replace the need for medical intervention in some cases. They cannot replace the need for police custody as some clients cannot be safely assisted in such facilities. This means that the triage into sobering centres, health system and police custody will continue to be needed. Ultimately, a comprehensive approach to intoxication is necessary, one including sobering facilities along with a continuum of housing, health, and corrections responses that challenges the criminalization of addiction.

For the full SPP paper on sobering centres, including Alpha House’s approach, Click here.