Liberals' Justice Reform Bill Keeps War on Drugs Alive, Policy Experts Say

While harm reduction experts applauded Justin Trudeau’s plan to remove mandatory minimums, they were also concerned the bill still reinforces harms associated with drug criminalization.
February 18, 2021, 9:23pm
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021.

The Liberal government’s newly proposed criminal justice reform legislation fails to address inequities around addiction treatment and will reinforce harms associated with drug criminalization, drug policy experts and harm reduction advocates say.

On Thursday, the Liberal government tabled Bill C-22 that would, if passed, repeal mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offences and encourage police and prosecutors to pursue alternatives to simple drug possession charges, including diverting people facing charges to addiction treatment programs. 

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For people caught with small amounts of illicit drugs, the law would give police officers the option to just let the person go, issue a warning, or give them the option to voluntarily be referred to an “agency or other service provider in the community that may assist the individual.” Courts would also be given greater ability to use conditional sentencing—allowing people to serve sentences in the community if they abide by certain requirements—when the case involves someone who is not a violent offender.

The legislation, framed by the government as a way to address how Black and Indigenous peoples have been disproportionately affected by criminalization, states that punishing people for simple drug possession “can increase the stigma associated with drug use and (is) not consistent with established public health evidence.”

While experts are heartened the bill would remove mandatory minimum criminal sentences for certain drug crimes, they say scrapping drug possession offences altogether is what’s urgently needed to help address the worsening overdose crisis and help mitigate the potential for violence during interactions with police.

“There is no justification for the continued involvement of police and the criminal justice system in the lives of people who use drugs, especially when it comes to simple possession,” Ryan McNeil, director of harm reduction research at Yale University School of Medicine who conducts research on drug use and criminalization in Canada, told VICE World News.

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“This bill is just lacking in political courage.”

When it comes to people being referred to treatment as an alternative to prosecution, McNeil said he’s already troubled by law enforcement and the courts having this ability especially as they are generally not trained in substance use and addiction. 

“This means that people get referred to treatment programs that are not evidence-based, that don’t have basic standards, and won’t actually accomplish the goal of addressing the overdose crisis,” he said, pointing to the predominance of abstinence-based treatment programs that aren’t regulated.

“Treatment availability varies so widely from province to province,” McNeil said. If someone is referred to an abstinence-based treatment program in Lethbridge, Alberta, he said, for example, that is radically different from someone being referred to a safer supply program in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Toronto-based harm reduction advocate Zoë Dodd told VICE World News she was also disappointed with the proposed law and said the resources spent on policing and the courts for drug offences would be better redirected into communities to improve access to voluntary treatment, which are frequently plagued with long waitlists. 

“If we used the budgets of the courts and the police to actually improve the conditions for people, including access to mental health supports and substance use supports, then people could choose to go to those on their own,” Dodd said. 

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Dodd said she is also worried about the reliance on drug treatment courts, which are an alternative for people facing drug-related charges or charges stemming from addictions. 

Canadian drug treatment courts (DTC) offer a subsection of people charged with drug-related crimes, or crimes stemming from their substance use, the ability to apply to be part of them. Participants typically have to plead guilty first before being accepted into the program—and most of the courts require complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol. Those who complete the program may receive various forms of reduced sentencing, such as suspended sentences or probation, instead of jail.

Proponents of DTCs say they improve the lives of successful participants while reducing the financial burden associated with criminalization and the prison system. They also say the programs help participants access education, employment, and health and social services.

But Dodd and other experts say the number of people who successfully complete DTCs is low, and participants may face further criminal sanctions for breaching their conditions as part of the program. “What people have been asking for is the decriminalization of the possession of drugs. This is not that,” Dodd said. “This is actually just an extension of criminalization. Police are not healthcare workers, police are not social workers.”

Richard Elliott, executive director of the HIV Legal Network, which has been advocating for the repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for decades and for decriminalization, said that the bill provides “potentially useful guidance” around how police and prosecutors could exercise their discretion when it comes to people facing drug possession charges. However, he said he’s skeptical that police and prosecutors will exercise their discretion in ways that actually lead to the reduction in criminalization. 

“It's really a bit of a mystery at this point why (the government) can’t just decriminalize simple possession; it’s not hard to do,” he said. 

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