Federal prosecutors told to avoid drug possession charges when possible in new directive

Federal prosecutors told to avoid drug possession charges when possible in new directive

Federal lawyers are being asked to avoid prosecuting simple drug possession cases unless major public safety concerns are at play — a move that comes amid a push on the federal government to reconsider decriminalization. 

The directive, which was issued earlier this week, revises the Public Prosecution Service of Canada’s (PPSC) approach to simple possession offences under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

Director of Public Prosecutions Kathleen Roussel is now asking her team of lawyers to focus on seeking charges only in “the most serious cases” and to otherwise ask for alternative measures, such as restorative justice and Indigenous approaches to divert simple possession cases away from the criminal justice system.

“For example, where the possession relates to a substance use disorder, prosecution should generally be avoided where the offender is enrolled in a drug treatment court program or a course of treatment provided under the supervision of a health professional,” said PPSC spokesperson Nathalie Houle in an email.

“When deciding whether to initiate and conduct any prosecution, PPSC prosecutors must consider not only whether there is a reasonable prospect of conviction based on the evidence available but also whether a prosecution serves the public interest.”

Cases meriting Criminal Code charges could involve children or young people at risk, weapon, threats, acts of violence or isolated communities, according to the new directive.

Houle said the federal agency has been reviewing its prosecution policies in light of public health research and the ongoing opioid crisis.

Mounting calls for decriminalization

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who has introduced two private member’s bills dealing with drug possession, said it’s the right step.

“Short of removing the offence entirely, this is a significantly improved policy for prosecutors,” the Beaches-East York MP tweeted Wednesday morning. 

The tweak comes amid a rising chorus of voices calling on the federal government to change its position on illicit drug decriminalization.

Back in May more than 50 human rights, drug and legal policy groups sent a letter to the health and public safety ministers asking them to halt criminal charges for simple drug possession as part of its response to COVID-19, arguing the pandemic has led to more dangerous drug use practices and a spike in overdose deaths.

And just last month British Columbia Premier John Horgan — whose province has seen a spike in overdoses during the pandemic —  urged the prime minister in a letter to decriminalize possession for personal use.

In his letter, Horgan said such a move would “reduce the systemic stigma associated with illicit drug use and support people to access the services that they need.” 

B.C. Premier John Horgan has written to the prime minister asking Ottawa to decriminalize drug possession as overdose deaths spike in his province. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

“Criminal prohibitions are ineffective in deterring drug use, and criminalization of drug possession directly leads to both individuals and systemic stigma and discrimination that prevent people from seeking services,” he wrote.

June was the worst month for overdose deaths in the province’s history with the BC Coroners Service recording 175 people dying of illicit-drug overdoses.

The numbers for July are not available yet, but paramedics said they had their busiest months on record since the overdose emergency was declared four years ago.

Across that province, paramedics responded to 2,706 overdose calls in July, well above the usual monthly average of around 2,000 calls, according to BC Emergency Health Services.

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