Liberals set to introduce bill to relax drug possession provisions

The federal government will relax drug possession provisions in the Criminal Code of Canada in a bill to be tabled in the House of Commons today, Radio-Canada has learned.

It will mark a significant change to the federal government’s approach to drug possession, aiming to ensure non-violent drug offenders are treated for their addictions by the health-care system, rather than being sent to jail.  

Sources have told Radio-Canada the bill will also contain provisions to reduce the incarceration rate among Black and Indigenous communities, which are now over-represented in the Canadian prison system.

For example, certain mandatory minimum sentences related to drug offences, which have been declared unconstitutional by several Canadian courts, could be revised.

The Liberal government’s bill will amend the Criminal Code of Canada so that non-violent offenders who have committed a first offence of simple drug possession are referred by default to a drug treatment court, which was a Liberal campaign promise.

Through these courts, people with addictions would be able to quickly receive treatment for their dependence that is mandated and supervised by a judge in collaboration with community organizations.

The move to promote alternatives to incarceration would treat addiction as a health issue, not a public safety issue, said lawyer Arij Riahi of the Juripop Clinic, who is eagerly awaiting the bill.

She said that change would help people and free up resources in the justice system.

Opposition has shown support

The New Democratic Party and the Greens have long advocated for a complete decriminalization of simple possession of all drugs. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has also said he is open to less severe penalties.

“We must provide assistance to Canadians who have drug addiction and health problems,” he said at a press briefing last month.

Drug treatment courts already exist in several Canadian cities, including Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver.

The Liberal bill is expected to standardize a directive issued this summer by the Director of Public Prosecutions of Canada. In August, federal prosecutors were instructed to pursue only the most serious offences of possession of hard drugs.

However, that directive has been applied unevenly across the country, particularly in Quebec and New Brunswick, where some of these charges are handled by provincial prosecutors.

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said mandatory minimum sentences have a disproportionate impact on Indigenous and racialized communities. 

Indigenous Canadians represent five per cent of the Canadian population but 25 per cent of the country’s prison population. Black Canadians represent about three per cent of the population but nine per cent of people behind bars.

It is an imbalance that often creates a vicious circle, according to Miller. Sending someone to jail could mean separation from their children, which could have an intergenerational impact, he said. 

In its reform of the Criminal Code, the federal government is also expected to make more room for restorative justice in order to fight systemic inequalities in the criminal justice system.

Restorative justice aims to promote the participation of the victim, the offender and the community in order to hold the offender accountable while providing an opportunity for healing and reintegration.

Similar projects already exist in several regions of the country, aiming to divert Indigenous youth and adults who have come into conflict with the law from the criminal justice system.