Canadian Bill Tabled to Relax Drug Possession Penalties

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Legislation in Canada introduced Bill C22, which would ease penalties for drug crimes such as possession and replace mandatory minimum penalties. The Canadian government stated drug crimes disproportionately harm black and indigenous offenders across the country. The bill, which parliament must still pass, proposes scrapping mandatory minimum jail sentences for non-violent drug crimes and allowing judges to order house arrest or mandatory counseling. The bill also encourages authorities to help individuals get treatment for addiction rather than charging them with drug possession. The new law would apply to drugs such as heroin, amphetamine, opioids, hallucinogens, and other narcotics.

Under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, mandatory minimum penalties for the following offenses would be repealed under Bill C22:

  • Trafficking or possession for the purpose of trafficking (two separate offenses)
  • Importing and exporting or possession for the purpose of exporting (two separate offenses)
  • Production of substance Schedule I or II (two offenses)—Schedule I drugs include mostly opioids requiring a prescription. Schedule II drugs do not require a prescription but are only accessible through a pharmacist. 

Currently, punishment for possession for the purpose of exporting is guilty of an indictable offense and liable to life imprisonment or a minimum of one year of imprisonment. Production of a substance is also an indictable offense and liable to life imprisonment or a minimum sentence. Possession for use in the production of or trafficking in a substance faces an indictable offense and a prison term of no more than ten years.

Prison Populations and Declining Drug-Related Arrests

In an annual report released by the Office of the Correctional Investigator, between 2007 and 2016, the overall federal prison population increased by less than 5%. The indigenous prison population increased by 39%. Over the last three decades, the incarceration rate for indigenous people increased every single year. Indigenous people make up less than 5% of the Canadian population yet comprise 26.4% of the total federal inmate population—37.6% of indigenous inmates are women. The black population in Canada accounts for 3.5% of the population yet makes up around seven percent of federal offenders. In 2018, there were 182 police service or detachments in Canada serving populations where over half of the residents were indigenous. During 2018, police in these communities reported crime rates were six times higher than crime rates reported by police services that served non-indigenous communities.

Drug arrests in Canada have been on the decline, and drug possession offenses in Canada have declined since 2012. In 2017 there were 90,625 drug arrests in Canada, and 42% of drug arrests were cannabis possession, and 72% of all drug arrests were for personal possession. The legalization of Cannabis occurred in 2018 with Bill C45, and drug possession crimes dropped significantly. In 2017, there were 2,219 heroin possession arrests in Canada and 8,896 methamphetamine possession arrests in Canada. Drug arrests had decreased from 317 per 100,000 people in 2012 to 247 per 100,000 people in 2017.

The percentage of indigenous and black Canadians going to residential treatment for drug-related crimes is low. Police maintain that enforcement is directed at stopping high-level production and selling of criminalized drugs. However, statistically, youth, poor, and marginalized people in Canada were most vulnerable to arrest. The current system is argued to cause organized crime, illegal, unregulated markets, toxic drugs, criminalization, community violence, and wasted resources. According to an article written in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, “Indigenous people have poorer health, on average, than non-indigenous populations and carry a disproportionate burden of harms related to substance use, resulting from structural and systemic disadvantages caused by colonization.”

Has Legislation Like Bill C22 Been Effective?

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, Portugal decriminalized drug possession in 2001, and drug use has remained about the same. However, drug arrests, incarceration, diseases, overdose, and other harms decreased. Overall drug use rates in the country remain below the European average—between 1998 and 2011, the number of people in residential treatment increased by 60%. The number of HIV infections and AIDS cases decreased significantly. From 2001 to 2012, drug overdose fatalities dropped. The number of people arrested and sent to criminal courts for drug offenses declined more than 60%, and incarceration rates declined from 44% to 24%.