Exemption ≠ Decriminalization

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Dear Friend,

The illicit drug poisoning crisis continues to exact a heavy toll. In British Columbia, the Coroners Service recorded more deaths from drug poisoning in 2021 than in any other year.

What is the government doing about the toxic drug supply? Read my latest analysis on the bills going through parliament, steps in the right direction, and missed opportunities on our blog.

On June 15, 2022, the House passed government Bill C-5, which removes mandatory minimum penalties for drug offences. This bill does not fully decriminalize simple possession or go far enough to shift Canada away from the damaging criminal law approach to drug use that has systemically and disproportionately impacted Indigenous, Black, and marginalized people.

Simply put, the federal government’s continued reliance on a criminal justice approach to drug use in Bill C-5 is incompatible with the public health approach envisioned by Canada’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett’s mandate letter. This contradiction demonstrates a lack of coordination between federal ministries... and a disappointing display of leadership that comes at a time when concerted action is needed to stem the devastating tide of preventable drug poisoning deaths.

Read my blog on the government’s inadequate response to the drug poisoning crisis.

On May 31, 2022, we saw a step in the right direction. The federal government made the historic move of granting the Province of BC’s request to exempt adults from being charged with the personal possession of certain illegal drugs. However, the BCCLA also views this announcement as a missed opportunity for the many people who will be left behind by the cumulative possession threshold of 2.5 grams once the exemption comes into effect in 2023.

It was also disappointing to see the federal government reject private member’s Bill C-216, which would have recognized the treatment of substance use as a public health issue. The bill, which was defeated on June 1, 2022, would have repealed simple possession offences, expunged the records of people with prior simple possession convictions, and implemented a national strategy on substance use with measures to ensure access to a safe supply of drugs and increased access to harm reduction, treatment, and recovery services.

For the federal government to tout the need for a public health approach while simultaneously making incremental adjustments to a flawed criminal regime is an incomprehensible, if not cynical, attempt to varnish its actions with the illusion of meaningful progress.

Learn more in my blog Exemption ≠ Decriminalization.

On average, we lose 6 lives a day in BC and 19 across Canada due to the ongoing crisis. We cannot continue to wait for exemption after exemption. The federal government must act quickly to save lives and ensure that no one is left behind.

How do we go forward from here? We believe a meaningful federal response must include programs that address the increasingly toxic supply, the harmful stigma, and the limited availability of services for people who do drugs. This is why the BCCLA endorses the civil society platform Decriminalization Done Right: A Rights Based Path for Drug Policy, which proposes fundamental changes to drug policy, including the full repeal of federal legislation criminalizing simple possession and necessity trafficking.

Thank you for standing with us. The BCCLA will continue to call for transformative, immediate, and coordinated action.


Stephen Chin (he/him)
Staff Counsel, Litigation

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