Prosecutors told to prosecute only the most serious drug possession offences


OTTAWA — Federal prosecutors are being instructed to criminally prosecute only the most serious drug possession offences and to find alternatives outside the criminal justice system for the rest.

The directive is contained in a new guideline issued by the director of public prosecutions, Kathleen Roussel.

“The approach set out in this guideline directs prosecutors to focus upon the most serious cases raising public safety concerns for prosecution and to otherwise pursue suitable alternative measures and diversion from the criminal justice system for simple possession cases,” it states.

In all instances, the guideline says alternatives to prosecution should be considered if the possession offence involves a person enrolled in a drug treatment court program or an addiction treatment program supervised by a health professional.

The same applies in cases that involve a violation of bail conditions and can be addressed adequately by a judicial referral hearing, as well as cases where the offender’s conduct can be dealt with by an approved alternative measure, including Indigenous and non-Indigenous “restorative justice” responses.

The guideline says criminal prosecution for possession of a controlled substance “should generally be reserved for the most serious manifestations of the offence.” It says cases would be considered serious if a person caught in possession of an illegal drug was engaged in conduct that could endanger the health or safety of others.

The guideline specifies six types of conduct that would generally warrant criminal prosecution:

  • Conduct that poses a risk to the safety or well-being of children or youth, such as being in possession of an illicit drug in the vicinity of places frequented by youths or being a person in a position of trust or statutory authority with respect to children.
  • Conduct that puts the health or safety of others at risk, such as driving or preparing to drive while impaired, supervising another person driving, operating machinery, possessing a weapon or performing an activity that poses a risk to public health or safety.
  • Conduct that “poses a heightened risk” to a community’s efforts to combat illegal substance use, an issue that often arises in isolated and remote communities.
  • Conduct where there’s “a factually grounded basis to associate it” with another drug offence, including cultivation, production, harvesting, trafficking or importation of a controlled substance.
  • Conduct in breach of rules in “a regulated setting” such as jail or prison.
  • Conduct committed by a peace officer or public officer that is relevant to the discharge of their duties.

The purpose of the guideline is to articulate “a principled prosecutorial litigation approach to the well-documented realities about the health impact of substance use while acknowledging that certain drug use may present particular public safety concerns.”

That seems consistent with the federal Liberal government’s approach to illegal drugs as being more a public health issue than a criminal one.

In their first mandate, the Liberals legalized the recreational use of cannabis. However, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rejected calls to decriminalize possession of other harder drugs, despite a resolution passed at the last Liberal convention calling for such an approach.

Instead, the Liberal platform in last fall’s election promised to make drug treatment court the default option for first-time non-violent offenders charged exclusively with simple possession. It also promised to help drug users get quick access to treatment.


  1. What they are trying to do is what Portugal has done but the west is too naive to accept decriminalization of all drugs. This will result in closures of jails and that money is then spent on treatment of the addicted individuals. Believe it or not MORE JAIL TIME DOES NOT LOWER CRIME RATES!!! The fn war on drugs has been going on for almost 40 years and it is getting worse. Treat the trauma and you have a chance at helping someone…send them to jail and they just go right back to where this all started, but like I said…Western society cannot accept this even tho it actually works.

    • Vince Paluzzi changing the strategy requires legislation voted on by duly elected representatives not bureaucrats deciding what laws to enforce and what to ignore. Without proper tools any decriminalization approach will fail.

    • Linda Assiginack I 100% agree with you, but placing someone in treatment rather than jail is a step forward to treating their trauma. I will guarantee you all of them want help, but they do not know what they need and do not know how to ask for it. Hurt people…hurt people. This is hard for some to understand, but it is the truth. People abuse substances as a way to numb their pain. If we put measures in place to try and help them it would SLOWLY turn things around. This is not foolproof and will not work for all (ever), but what we are doing now is not working at all.

    • Michael Bizier I agree with you. This will not work without proper tools and measures put in place, but it is a step forward. We cannot “vote” on every piece of legislation put forward. This is why you vote every 4 years. I do not trust my government with tax dollars and how they cater to corporate greed, but I do believe this legislation is a step in the right direction. A jail sentence will not help a person who is struggling. I am not saying jails are worthless, but when it comes to addiction and trauma I do believe jails are not helping us or the addict at all.

    • Vince Paluzzi this wasn’t done through legislation it was a policy decision made by public servants that essentially overrides legislation and the elected representatives of citizens. Although we agree change is needed, it’s not a step forward if it isn’t being done in conjunction with tools provided by proper legislation. Choosing not to prosecute does not end the cycle, sentences should be tied to treatment and recovery.

    • Vince Paluzzi you have a point in what you’re saying. Traditionally, drug addiction has been handled as a moral failing and a criminal matter, rather than a psychological trauma-based problem that requires medical intervention. I think that the roots of this punitive approach lie in the various flavours of Protestantism that founded the North American society. Remember as well how Prohibition was a response to the ills of alcohol abuse. That mentality is likely not going away soon, and so I doubt that this continent will try what Portugal has tried. But yes, this war on drugs is a failure, as the problem has not been solved in that way so far.

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