Canadian prosecutors advised to only pursue "serious" drug possession charges

Aug 20 2020, 9:15 am

Outside of the most serious cases, Canada’s public prosecutors have been instructed to find means other than criminal charges for simple drug possession.

A new guideline added to the Public Prosecution Service of Canada’s Deskbook by Director Kathleen Roussel lays out the new policy, which it believes weighs public safety against effective ways to combat substance abuse.

According to the guideline, “substance use has a significant health component,” and may also lead to crimes and conduct that poses “separate serious public safety concerns requiring a criminal enforcement component.”

In the previous system, simple possession charges may result in a criminal record or a short period of time in prison. On that, Roussel says in the directive that “criminal sanctions, as a primary response, have a limited effectiveness” and as a deterrent, and do little to bolster overall public safety when “considering the harmful effects of criminal records and short periods of incarceration.”

Prosecutors will instead rely on a variety of tools to divert drug users, including Drug Treatment Courts, alternative measures, and referral hearings.

“The policy also directs prosecutors to pursue suitable alternative measures including restorative justice and Indigenous approaches,” the PPS wrote on Twitter.

In all instances, prosecutors are asked to consider alternatives to criminal charges if the subject is enrolled in a court drug program or is receiving treatment from a healthcare professional.

In the event a user’s actions violate bail conditions, the directive also suggests a judicial referral hearing.

And, when offenders are Indigenous, prosecutors are asked to consider turning to a restorative justice response.

Possession cases that will come with criminal penalties are meant to be the “most serious cases raising public safety concerns,” which the agency says happens when substance abuse intersects with other types of criminality.

“These public safety concerns may include risks to children or young persons, weapons charges, threats or acts of violence, effects on isolated communities, and other issues related to the safety of Canadians,” the PPS said.

Overall, there are six defined factors that should lead prosecutors to pursue criminal charges in cases of simple possession.

Those include when offences are committed near or in places frequented by children or by a person who is in a position of trust or authority of children, when driving or being responsible for a person who is driving, or when found to be committing other offences relating to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (including cultivation, production, harvesting, and trafficking).

Possession found to taking place in a custodial facility — such as a jail or penitentiary — or when committed by a peace officer or public officer, where it is “relevant to the discharge of their duties,” are also recommended for criminal charges.

The guideline follows a call in July from the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police recommending the decriminalization of the personal possession of drugs as the best way to deal with substance abuse and addiction.

In a release at the time, the CACP wanted police departments to reframe personal drug use as a public health issue, believing that a public health approach is better suited to deal with the issue of overdoses than criminal penalties.

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