By Erika Dupuis & Kira London-Nadeau / Filter Mag
After decades of campaigning, the decriminalization of all drugs for personal use in Canada finally feels just around the corner.
On August 17, a set of guidelines issued by the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) called on prosecutors to pursue non-criminal sanctions for simple drug possession. They noted plainly:
“Criminal sanctions, as a primary response, have limited effectiveness as (i) specific or general deterrents and (ii) as a means of addressing the public safety concerns when considering the harmful effects of criminal records and short periods of incarceration.”
Tragic increases in overdose deaths amid the pandemic, particularly in British Columbia and Ontario—together with growing calls, amid racial justice protests, to prioritize health and human rights over criminalization—can no longer be ignored.
Decriminalization is a bold idea—one seemingly too progressive for the Liberal Party of Canada, which leads a minority government that remains opposed. But we are rapidly approaching a tipping-point.
The PPSC’s announcement was praised in the media as an essential step toward decriminalization. But experts and advocates are wary of the guidelines’ limitations. Sandra Ka Hon Chu, director of research and advocacy at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, cautions about the discretion that police and prosecutors will retain. Speaking to Filter, she encouraged us to ask critical questions.
“Will police continue to surveil, harass and charge people?” she asked. “Will the requirement to continue to pursue charges for those who ‘possess in the vicinity of children’ or those with ‘statutory authority over children’ disproportionately fall on women who use drugs? Or will the requirement to continue to pursue charges against people in detention largely fall on Indigenous and Black people, who are both grossly overrepresented in our prison system and disproportionately marginalized by repressive drug laws?”
Despite these critical reservations—and the fact that the guidelines still entail civil penalties, like fines, for simple possession—the unprecedented announcement speaks loudly to an urgent question: Can full decriminalization become politically viable in Canada?