HIV Legal Network urges feds to decriminalize simple drug possession

Justice reforms introduced last week would repeal mandatory minimum sentences for all drug offences

HIV Legal Network urges feds to decriminalize simple drug possession

The HIV Legal Network has called on the federal government to immediately fully repeal the criminal prohibition on simple drug possession, considering the acknowledged dangers of criminalizing individuals using drugs and the stigma that accompanies a punitive drug policy.

A Feb. 18 statement by Richard Elliott, executive director of the HIV Legal Network, expressed approval of certain changes introduced by Bill C-22, which proposes amendments to the Criminal Code and to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, including the repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for all drug offences, the greater availability of conditional sentences and the alternatives offered to criminal charges for individuals in possession of drugs for personal use.

“Bill C-22 takes a first step towards ending the failed ‘War on Drugs,’” wrote Elliott.

The bill acknowledges the nature of drug use as a health issue and the dangers of criminalizing the possession of drugs for personal use. The bill notes that interventions should draw upon best practices based on evidence; should seek to safeguard the health, dignity and human rights of persons using drugs; and should minimize harm to such persons, their families and their communities.

However, the HIV Legal Network criticized the bill for failing to fully decriminalize simple drug possession, as over 170 Canadian organizations advocating for health and human rights have recommended. The criminalization of those using drugs breaches human rights and exacerbates poverty, homelessness and the deadly stigma associated with drug use, as well as worsens the epidemics of HIV, hepatitis C and deaths by overdose, the HIV Legal Network said.

The HIV Legal Network noted that the bill still allows police officers to “warn” individuals in possession of drugs or to refer them to services, allows police officers and prosecutors to charge and prosecute people for such drug use and allows police officers to maintain a record of warnings to people possessing drugs for personal use, which amounts to a continuing and unnecessary encroachment of human rights.

In effect, there is an ongoing threat of surveillance, interrogation, detention and other harms, including the threat of potential charges for simple possession during interactions between police and individuals using drugs, the HIV Legal Network lamented.

The HIV Legal Network, Pivot Legal Society and the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition sent a letter in May 2020 urging Patty Hajdu, federal health minister; Bill Blair, federal minister of public safety and emergency preparedness; and David Lametti, federal justice minister and Canada’s attorney general, to immediately decriminalize simple drug possession in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the crisis of opioid overdoses.

The present statement follows up on certain developments that occurred after the May 2020 letter, including Vancouver’s formal application for an exemption within city limits and B.C.’s announced plans to follow suit.

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