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Decriminalization is defined by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) as, “an evidence-based policy strategy to reduce the harms associated with the criminalization of illicit drugs. […] Decriminalization aims to decrease harm by removing mandatory criminal sanctions, often replacing them with responses that promote access to education and to harm reduction and treatment services.” (CCSA 2018: 2). However, this can cover a broad range of policies, where sanctions can vary in degree. While we provide the legalist definition below, some activists, such as Karen Ward, Zoe Dodd, including members of this group, have argued that only removing all criminal penalties, sanctions and police interaction should be considered decriminalization. We provide the list from the CCSA below, to demonstrate some of the potential alternatives, moving from the most restrictive legal options to the least restrictive:


  • Targeted exemptions (e.g. SCS and prescription maintenance)

  • Court Diversion - outreach through prosecutorial guidance or judicial authority

  • Police Diversion - alternatives to criminal justice responses through outreach at point of arrest (e.g. informal warnings, referrals to treatment (but not forced treatment)

  • Formal sanctions - remove criminal justice sanctions altogether for certain drug-related offenses, and instead sanctions include (1) formal warnings and (2) small fines

  • Personal possession - removing criminal justice sanctions for simple possession (varies by definition of threshold quantity)


In the case of Portugal, which decriminalized illicit drugs in 2000, results have shown a drop in the number of overdose deaths, HIV infections and incarceration for drug-related offences, as well as an increase in the number of people voluntarily entering treatment. Given Oregon’s recent move to decriminalize illicit drug possession, which took effect on February 1, 2021 - making Oregon the first state in the US to do so - there is an increased push to make the move in Canada. In November 2020 city councilors in Vancouver, BC unanimously approved a motion to seek decriminalization from Ottawa. On January 27, 2021, Vancouver’s mayor announced that they would be entering into formal discussion with Health Canada about the request. Montreal and the Toronto Board of Health have also made requests to the federal government to decriminalize.

Countries, such as Portugal, Costa Rica, Germany and Uruguay have removed criminal penalties for drugs. In a recent report by the International Network of People Who Use Drugs (INPUD), they found that even in countries where decriminalization has been implemented, many people who use drugs still have to interact with the legal system, and “full decriminalization without sanctions—would significantly improve the situation overall” (36). Public health bodies in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Vancouver have given their support for a form of decriminalization, but it has yet to be seen which form of decriminalization will be implemented. Vancouver, so far, is the only city that has sought to decriminalize possession using the same exemption process that allows Insite (North America’s first sanctioned supervised consumption site) to operate.

Punitive, “tough on crime” approaches to substance use, which rely on penalties and sanctions, have been found to be ineffective in deterring drug use. Tough on crime policies escalated during the War on Drugs in the 1980s, with the argument that having harsh penalties for using illicit drugs will act as a deterrent to people using drugs. ‘Tough love’ refers to the idea that punishment through the criminal justice system (and the often forced withdrawal during incarceration) is the best way to show someone the ‘error of their ways.’ These arguments are both paternalistic and based on a set of morals that ignore the evidence that:

  • Exposing PWUD to the criminal justice system does not reduce drug use (see here);

  • Incarceration increases the probability of overdose upon release (see here);

  • Criminalizing addiction is not justice for PWUD

Additional resource:


The organizers of a newly launched Canadian social media campaign (#DecrimDoneRight) have released a statement supporting the proposal for decriminalization in Vancouver, BC, while also outlining a number of concerns on implementation. The 3 major concerns addressed are:

  1. Lack of meaningful and equitable engagement of those directly affected;

  2. Threshold amounts for decriminalized possession, and

  3. Police dictating the parameters of decriminalization


You can find the full statement here (English and French)

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