Recommendations on Alternatives to Criminal Penalties for Simple Possession of Controlled Substances

The Task Force found that criminalization of simple possession causes harms to Canadians and needs to end.

Health Canada Drug Task Force Report Health Canada Drug Task Force Report



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This report presents the conclusions and recommendations from the first part of the mandate of the Health Canada Expert Task Force on Substance Use. The Task Force met, heard presentations, reviewed documents, and deliberated on the topic of alternatives to criminal penalties for simple possession of controlled substances from March 10 to May 4th, 2021. The Task Force found that criminalization of simple possession causes harms to Canadians and needs to end. The Task Force was mindful of five core issues when making recommendations: stigma; disproportionate harms to populations experiencing structural inequity; harms from the illegal drug market; the financial burden on the health and criminal justice systems; and unaddressed underlying conditions.

The Task Force also considered Canada’s obligations under international treaties, lessons learned in other jurisdictions, the important issue of safety, supports for community, recent developments under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, and the broader Canadian legal framework.

The Task Force makes the following recommendations related to decriminalisation and regulation:

  1. The Task Force unanimously recommends that Health Canada end criminal penalties related to simple possession and most also recommend that Health Canada end all coercive measures related to simple possession and consumption.
  2. Most Task Force members recommend that the Government of Canada immediately begin a process of legislative change to bring the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA), the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act (TVPA), the Cannabis Act, and any other relevant federal legislation under a single public health legal framework with regulatory structures that are specific to different types of substances.
  3. The Task Force recommends that thresholds for simple possession be based on presumption of innocence, and that they be set high enough to account for the purchasing and consumption habits of all people who use drugs.
  4. As part of decriminalisation, the Task Force recommends that criminal records from previous offenses related to simple possession be fully expunged. This should be complete deletion, automatic, and cost-free.

In addition, the Task Force makes the following related recommendations:

  1. The Task Force recommends that Canada make significant investments in providing a full spectrum of supports for people who use drugs or substances or who are in recovery.
  2. The Task Force recommends the implementation of a more comprehensive and responsive system to rapidly and effectively gather, use, and disseminate evidence about substance use, its effects, and the impacts of government policies on the health and wellbeing of Canadians.
  3. The Task Force strongly urges Health Canada to respect the sovereign rights of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada and support their governments in providing appropriate prevention and treatment approaches.
  4. The Task Force recommends that Health Canada convene a new committee that centers people with lived and living experience of substance use to provide advice on the implementation of its recommendations.

REPORT 2: Recommendations on the Federal Government’s Drug Policy as Articulated in a Draft Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy (CDSS)

  • Key recommendation (legal regulation): “Include as a core priority of the CDSS to immediately develop and implement a single public health framework with specific regulations for all psychoactive substances, including currently illegal drugs as well as alcohol, tobacco, and cannabis. This framework should aim to minimize the scale of the illegal market, bring stability and predictability to regulated markets for substances, and provide access to safer substances for those at risk of injury or death from toxic illegal substances.”