The federal government has introduced a new bill to repeal mandatory minimum penalties for certain drug offences — penalties the Liberals say have disproportionately harmed Indigenous and Black offenders and those with struggling with addictions.
Attorney General David Lametti introduced Bill C-22 in the House of Commons this morning and will hold a news conference at 12:30 a.m. ET to provide more details. CBC News will carry it live.
His office says the bill also will require police and prosecutors to consider alternatives to laying charges in simple possession cases, such as diversion to addiction treatment programs. It will give the courts leeway to use conditional sentence orders in cases where an individual isn’t a public safety threat.
“Serious criminals deserve to be seriously punished and kept away from our communities. But too many lower-risk and first-time offenders, including a disproportionate number of Indigenous peoples and Black Canadians, are being sent to prison and locked up for too long because of policies which are proven not to deter crime or help keep our communities safe,” said Lametti’s spokesperson Rachel Rappaport.
Thursday’s announcement marks a significant shift in the federal government’s approach to illicit drug possession — away from incarceration and toward addictions treatment for non-violent offenders.
The move to promote alternatives to incarceration would treat addiction as a health issue, not a public safety issue, said lawyer Arij Riahi of the Juripop Clinic, who is eagerly awaiting the bill.
She said that change would help people and free up resources in the justice system.
Opposition has shown support
The New Democratic Party and the Greens have long advocated for a complete decriminalization of simple possession of all drugs. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has also said he is open to less severe penalties.
“We must provide assistance to Canadians who have drug addiction and health problems,” he said at a press briefing last month.
Drug treatment courts already exist in several Canadian cities, including Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver.
The Liberal bill standardizes a directive issued this summer by the Director of Public Prosecutions of Canada. In August, federal prosecutors were instructed to pursue only the most serious offences of possession of hard drugs.
That directive has been applied unevenly across the country, however — particularly in Quebec and New Brunswick, where some of these charges are handled by provincial prosecutors.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller has said mandatory minimum sentences have a disproportionate impact on Indigenous and racialized communities.
Indigenous Canadians represent five per cent of the Canadian population but 25 per cent of the country’s prison population. Black Canadians represent about three per cent of the population but nine per cent of people behind bars.
It is an imbalance that often creates a vicious circle, said Miller. Sending someone to jail could mean separation from their children, which could have an intergenerational impact, he added.