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A wall at a supervised consumption site is decorated with notes written in chalk Friday January 22, 2021 in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

A new federal bill would encourage police and prosecutors to treat drug possession as a health issue and reduce the criminal-justice system’s reliance on jail for a wide range of crimes. Mandatory prison terms for drug trafficking would be eliminated.

Canada is in the midst of an overdose crisis that has killed thousands of people, and Justice Minister David Lametti said the government will continue to invest in community programs to give police alternatives to the criminal justice system.

The proposed changes introduced on Thursday are also driven by a need to reduce the overincarceration of minority groups, and by the Black Lives Matter and Indigenous Lives Matter social movements, Mr. Lametti told The Globe and Mail.

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In the face of a different pandemic, Ottawa is again refusing to listen to the science

Portraits of loss: One hundred lives, felled by an overdose crisis

B.C. seeks exemption to decriminalize drug possession

Bill C-22 tells police and prosecutors that courts are better used for crimes that endanger the public than for the simple possession of illegal drugs. Echoing a directive last year within the federal prosecution service, it says substance abuse is primarily a health and social issue, and that criminalizing drug use harms individuals and communities.

But the bill stops short of decriminalizing such drug use, and Mr. Lametti said that is not the goal. The legislation would instruct police to consider whether, instead of laying charges, they should take no further action, warn the individual or refer them to a community service provider.

“Where it’s not a first offence or where there might be some other extenuating factors, it may be that the police officer does go on to charge the person. But we want to give that discretion to the people who are closest to persons on the ground, who understand the context, and fashion the best response. I think it’s a huge change, symbolically.”

Minister of Justice David Lametti responds to a question during a news conference on in Ottawa Oct. 19, 2020.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The government is also proposing to repeal 20 of the country’s 60-plus mandatory minimum jail sentences, including for drug trafficking and some gun crimes. And it would allow some sentences of less than two years to be served at home if a judge determines the offender is not a threat to public safety.

Imagine, Mr. Lametti said, an overwhelmed single mother who walks into a store and shoots at the ceiling, scaring people but hurting no one. “Is incarceration with a minimum mandatory penalty the right penalty for her?” he asked.

He said the proposed law would move Canada off a “failed so-called tough-on-crime policy” that clogs the criminal justice system without making communities safer.

Indigenous people make up 31.5 per cent of the 12,441 men in federal prisons, while Black people accounted for 9.5 per cent of male prisoners, as of Feb. 14, according to the Office of the Correctional Investigator.

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Those proportions have risen sharply on the Liberals’ watch. As of October, 2015, when the Trudeau government was first elected, the corresponding numbers were 25.3-per-cent Indigenous male prisoners and 9-per-cent Black prisoners.

In this file photo taken on June 25, 2020 Narcan nasal spray, an overdose prevention spray, can be seen at a popular spot in Ottawa, Ontario, on June 25, 2020.

LARS HAGBERG/AFP/Getty Images

Mr. Lametti described the proposed changes as a reversal of crime policies from the decade-long Conservative era under prime minister Stephen Harper. The Conservatives largely erased conditional sentences, sometimes referred to as house arrest, a Liberal innovation from 1996. And they created about 60 minimum sentences, mostly for crimes involving guns and drugs, and sexual offences.

Mr. Lametti said he has been thinking about the changes for some time and they were added to his mandate letter from the Prime Minister in response to the Indigenous and Black social movements of the past year.

“Politics is the art of the possible,” he said. “This is when it’s possible.”

Mr. Lametti’s predecessor as Justice Minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, had promised in November, 2016, that the government would soon cut down on mandatory minimums.

Now an Independent MP, Ms. Wilson-Raybould applauded the proposed bill, but said it does not go far enough. “Overrepresentation is not going to be solved by these measures in this bill. But any effort towards addressing those issues is important.”

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Nate Erskine-Smith, the Liberal MP for the Toronto riding of Beaches-East York, who in 2019 introduced a private members bill to decriminalize possession, called the proposals “unquestionably a step forward.”

“While it is not as far as I want us to go in the end, the legislation, if passed, would make it virtually impossible for a prosecution of drug possession for personal use to proceed,” he said.

Karen Ward, a drug policy adviser to the City of Vancouver, said anything short of a full repeal of criminal prohibition of possession is insufficient. “This is the time for bold leaps,” she said.

The Liberals received praise for their attempt to reduce the disproportionate jailing of Indigenous peoples.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said the removal of mandatory minimums would have a huge impact in keeping First Nations people out of the legal system. He also said conditional sentencing is a good thing because it would give police and Crown prosecutors options.

The Official Opposition said the bill would put community safety at risk.

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Conservative Party justice critic Rob Moore and House Leader Gérard Deltell criticized the elimination of the mandatory minimum for trafficking of dangerous drugs, and said the legislation would do little to help those with addiction. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the bill contains positive steps, but the Liberal government hasn’t fundamentally changed its approach to addiction, mental health and poverty.

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