Canada Introduces New Bill to Reduce Small-Time Drug Prosecutions

Credit to Author: Justin Ling| Date: Thu, 18 Feb 2021 15:47:57 GMT

The Trudeau government has unveiled sweeping new justice legislation, aimed to ramp down prosecutions for drug crimes and address the growing problem of over-incarcerating Black and Indigenous peoples.

The new law, if passed, would prioritize treatment for drug users, instead of prosecution and possible incarceration. While not full drug decriminalization, it is a step forward towards ending the war on drugs in Canada.

The bill also abolishes a number of mandatory minimum sentences.

The government bill, introduced in the House of Commons by Justice Minister David Lametti Thursday, makes good on some long-delayed promises by the Liberal government to reform Canada’s justice system.

The new law will specifically allow police officers, when stopping someone in possession of recreational drugs, to “consider whether it would be preferable…to take no further action, or warn the individual, or, with the consider of the individual, to refer the individual to a program or to an agency or other service provider in the community that may assist the individual.”

The legislation largely borrows from a private members’ bill from Liberal backbencher Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who has long advocated for full drug decriminalization. He told VICE World News that he’s “pretty happy” with the bill.

“I introduced my bill to push the government to take a stronger public health approach to address the opioid crisis and never expected that it would become a government bill,” Erskine-Smith said. “So it's a really positive step forward and if this becomes law, it would be virtually impossible for a prosecution of simple possession to proceed.”

The stakes are high: 2020 was a particularly deadly year in Canada’s opioid crisis. British Columbia, alone, saw over 1,700 deaths, its worst year on record. The surge in drug poisonings and overdoses has pushed many to call for full drug decriminalization, something Trudeau has repeatedly refused to do.

British Columbia has sought a specific exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, effectively allowing for province-wide decriminalization. The federal government is still considering the request.

Lametti was asked by Trudeau to “address systemic inequities in the criminal justice system,” specifically programs that would divert racialized and Indigenous offenders out of the justice system entirely.

A government official with knowledge of the bill told VICE World News that, with speculation rampant that Canada will head into an election in the spring, they are committed to getting the bill passed into law before the House dissolves.

Despite making up just 5 percent of Canada’s population, more than 30 percent of federal inmates are Indigenous. Nearly 10 percent of inmates are Black. Non-white inmates are more likely to be incarcerated at higher-security prisons, more likely to have force used upon them, and are more likely to be denied parole.

Canada’s over-incarceration problem is due, in large part, to mandatory minimum sentences introduced by the previous Conservative government but left in place and enforced by Trudeau.

A 2018 report from the justice ministry found that over the decade from 2007 to 2017, when many of those tough-on-crime laws were made, Black and Indigenous offenders were disproportionately sentenced using mandatory minimum penalties.

Nearly half of non-white offenders in federal prison are serving time under a mandatory minimum sentence, compared to less than a third of white offenders.

The courts have been striking down these mandatory penalties so frequently that the Supreme Court has declined to hear many of the appeals. That has left a patchwork across the country, where these laws are unconstitutional and invalid in some provinces and territories but not others. 

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