The following can be attributed to Richard Elliott, Executive Director, HIV Legal Network.

February 18, 2021 – Ottawa – Today, the HIV Legal Network welcomes some of the amendments in Bill C-22, An Act to amend the Criminal Code and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Bill C-22 repeals mandatory minimum sentences for all drug offences, increases the availability of conditional sentences, and provides alternatives to criminal charges for people in possession of drugs for personal use. These are all positive. But the bill falls short by failing to simply repeal the criminal prohibition on personal drug possession, even while it acknowledges that drug use is a health issue and that criminalization causes harm and contributes to stigma.

For more than two decades, the HIV Legal Network (formerly the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network) has called on federal policymakers to treat drug use as a health issue, not a law enforcement one. We have consistently called for the repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences as harmful on fiscal, public health, and human rights grounds. Mandating minimum prison terms guarantees unfair and harsh sentences in the case of drug offences — disproportionately affecting Black and Indigenous communities, people living in poverty, and people who are dependent on drugs. As we argued in the cases of R. v. Lloyd and R. v. Sharma, mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences is also unconstitutional.

Criminalizing people who use drugs also violates human rights, fueling deadly stigma, poverty and homelessness, and the current epidemics of HIV, hepatitis C, and overdose deaths. Bill C-22 takes a first step towards ending the failed “War on Drugs.” It acknowledges that interventions should be founded on “evidence-based best practices and should aim to protect the health, dignity and human rights of individuals who use drugs and to reduce harm to those individuals, their families and their communities.” It also notes that “criminal sanctions imposed in respect of the possession of drugs for personal use can increase the stigma associated with drug use and are not consistent with established public health evidence.”

But Bill C-22 does not fully decriminalize simple drug possession, as more than 170 health and human rights organizations across Canada have urged. Instead, Bill C-22 still authorizes police officers to “warn” people found in possession of drugs or to refer them to services, and police officers and prosecutors can still charge and prosecute people, after consideration of the bill’s principles. At the same time, the bill permits police officers to keep a record of such warnings to people in possession of drugs for personal use — an unnecessary, ongoing infringement of human rights. This also means the threat of a possible charge for simple possession is still at play during any interaction between police and people who use drugs. There will continue to be the threat of surveillance, interrogation, detention, prosecution, and other harms.

In light of all the acknowledged harms of criminalizing people who use drugs, including the stigma attached to punitive drug policy, we call on the Government of Canada to introduce instead a full repeal of the criminal prohibition on simple drug possession. There is no time to waste.



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