Our Request For Amendments to Bill C-22

On February 18, 2021, the Minister of Justice introduced Bill C-22, which proposes amendments to the Criminal Code and to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Its intention is to address the over-incarceration of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour), and commits to take a public health centered approach to substance use, addictions and the opioid crisis. You can read the backgrounder here.

While MAPS Canada applauds Bill C-22 for proposing to repeal mandatory minimum sentences, we are concerned that maintaining prosecutors’ discretion to charge individuals for simple drug possession would continue to perpetuate systemic racism in Canada’s criminal justice system. It would also perpetuate the criminalization of psychedelics, which many Canadians use to treat mental health issues.

You can see the response letter that MAPS Canada sent to the Parliament of Canada below.

Our Letter To the Parliament of Canada

May 18, 2021

Dear Parliamentarians,

On behalf of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) Canada, we are writing to suggest improvements to bill C-22: An Act to amend the Criminal Code and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. In particular, we write to request that you consider amendments to bill C-22 to:

  1. Repeal section 4 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) and any other necessary coordinating amendments as similarly proposed in bill S-229 (the Health-Centred Approach to Substance Use Act); and
  2. Create a national strategy to decriminalize psychedelics substances.

MAPS Canada is a registered, charitable, non-profit, Canadian organization. Its mission is to work with partners in government, business and the community to position itself as the leading resource in the field of psychedelic medicine through multidisciplinary research and clinical trials, public education, and the training of psychedelic therapists.

MAPS Canada’s immediate focus is the medicalization of psychedelic drugs through clinical trials, specifically in the context of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. This involves a medical professional administering a psychedelic substance such as 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), paired with psychotherapy, to people with conditions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or end-of-life distress. These treatment paradigms have shown tremendous promise. Nations around the world are conducting clinical trials in hopes of legalizing such substances for medicinal use, including Canada, the United States of America and Israel, which are approved by both the Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada. In the long term, MAPS Canada envisions a world where psychedelics are legally and widely available for medical and beneficial non-medical uses.

A public health approach to addictions and the opioid epidemic, which continues to impact communities across the country, would be far more effective than the current criminalization approach. This latter approach has continuously failed to address substance use issues, and violates human rights of those who use drugs, thereby fueling stigma and disrupting the process of seeking and obtaining help. Deaths due to the opioid crisis (the vast majority of which are accidental) are now peaking due to the interruption to drug supply chains and drug treatment programs caused by the coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19). The human suffering caused by these public health crises is tragic and unacceptable, which is why we support the actions taken by parliamentarians to decriminalize drugs.

The intention of bill C-22 is to:

  1. “address the disproportionate impact on Indigenous and Black offenders, as well as those struggling with substance use and addiction”; and
  2. “Require police and prosecutors to consider other measures for simple possession of drugs such as diversion to addiction treatment programs”.

All of your parties have previously expressed support for bill C-22’s intentions and MAPS Canada also supports them. However, bill C-22, as it is currently written, will not accomplish its intentions. Bill C-22 maintains prosecutors’ discretion to charge individuals under subsection 4(1) of the CDSA. Prosecutors already have the discretion to consider other measures for simple possession and regularly choose not to use them. In 2019, (the latest year with public figures), prosecutors laid 33,328 charges under the CDSA for simple drug possession. These figures do not account for the cases when individuals are charged under provincial offences or municipal by-laws instead, or when individuals are diverted into treatment programs. If bill C-22 passes in its current form, simple possession of drugs will remain a criminal offence, contributing to continued interactions between police and people who use drugs and the high risk of human rights violations. Instead of using their discretion not to bring criminal charges, prosecutors could still contribute to the disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous and Black Canadians, even after “having regard to the principles set out in section 10.1” of the bill.

Criminal and administrative sanctions for substance use are not effective strategies, as they can lead users into a cycle of unlawful or unsafe practices such as theft, unsafe sex work and the purchase of drugs from a potentially unsafe supply. Criminalization also fuels the stigma associated with people that use drugs. For these reasons, it is imperative that substance use and addictions be managed not as a criminal justice issue, but as a public health issue which is compounded by factors including race, sex, gender, poverty, homelessness, chronic illness and social inequality. Decriminalizing simple drug possession by repealing section 4 of the CDSA would ensure no more Canadians would be imprisoned for simple drug possession.

Further to this, we would ask that you consider developing a strategy for decriminalizing psychedelic substances. Psychedelics are substances whose primary effect is to trigger non-ordinary states of consciousness and include LSD, MDMA, psilocybin mushrooms, and ketamine. Clinical research reveals the effectiveness of treating several mental health conditions with psychedelic substances, while having a proportionately small harm profile compared to other legal and regulated drugs such as alcohol and tobacco (See figure 1 below).

Many people with mental illnesses use psychedelic substances to treat their symptoms. People with mental illnesses, including substance use and addictions, are already criminalized in circumstances where treatment would be far more appropriate. If only simple drug possession is decriminalized, without a strategy to decriminalize other activities related to psychedelics, there is a serious risk that police officers and prosecutors will wrongly pursue other criminal offences against individuals using psychedelics substances for their own personal health and well-being.

Figure 1: Source: Nutt DJ, King LA, Phillips LD. Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis. Lancet 376: 1558-1565.  (See common psychedelic substances above such as ecstasy (also referred to as MDMA) and mushrooms (also referred to as psilocybin))

There is strong, growing support for the decriminalization of substances, with several calls to action from across Canada and the world. International calls to action come from the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNAIDS. Calls to action from across Canada include Vancouver City Council, Montreal City Council, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, an Open Letter from the HIV Legal Network (with more than a hundred signatures from various organizations), and a proposed bill from Senator Gwen Boniface (Bill S-229).

MAPS Canada applauds bill C-22 for proposing to repeal mandatory minimum penalties and would be pleased to support the bill if our suggested amendments are made. We believe this would effectively address your shared intentions to address the over-incarceration of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour), and commitment to take a public health centered approach to substance use, addictions and the opioid crisis.

Finally, you will find attached a list of people who support this letter, which includes concerned Canadian citizens, health professionals, and advocates from across the country. A member of MAPS Canada would be pleased to further discuss this matter with yourself, any member of Parliament or a member of your respective staff.

Yours sincerely,

Taylor Rodrigues & Michelle Scott
MAPS Canada Drug Policy Committee Leads