Data reveals that courts across Ontario have withdrawn or stayed 85% of drug possession charges before they reach trial during the past 12 months. However, these numbers are not consistent throughout all regions of the province.
Prior to the pandemic, only 45% of drug possession charges were either withdrawn or stayed prior to trial.
THE IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON THE COURT SYSTEM
Ontario’s provincial offences court suspended in-person trials and hearings due to the risks associated with COVID-19. As a result, there are significant delays being reported throughout courts across Ontario.
Doug Downey, Ontario’s attorney general, has revealed that the province is developing ways to eliminate the backlog of court cases created by the pandemic shutdowns. One solution already implemented is an online early resolution process.
Another approach to address the delays affecting criminal cases in Ontario may be the tactic suggested by Kathleen Roussel, director of public prosecutions for the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (“PPSC”). The PPSC is responsible for prosecuting drug offences.
In August of 2020, Roussel recommended that federal Crown prosecutors only pursue the “most serious” drug possession cases.
A new policy was established in Part 5.13 of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada Deskbook, which set out that the “most serious” drug possession cases meriting prosecution involve:
- Conduct that poses a risk to the well-being of children or young persons;
- Conduct that puts at risk the health and safety of others (ie. impairment while preparing to drive or being responsible for a person driving);
- Conduct that is associated with another offence, including cultivation, production, harvesting or trafficking;
- Conduct that is in breach of the rules of a jail or penitentiary;
- Conduct committed by a peace office or public officer.
LESS SERIOUS POSSESSION CASES TO BE DIVERTED
All other “less serious” drug possession cases were recommended to be diverted. Diversion occurs when an accused charged with a criminal offence is diverted out of the court system and required to provide reparation to society for the alleged wrongdoing.
The following are examples of reparations that may be considered to make up for the harm caused by the offence:
- Community service;
- A donation to a charity;
- Anger management counseling;
- Addiction or mental health counselling;
- A letter of apology; or
- A specific program established for the individual’s particular situation.
When the terms of diversion have been completed, the criminal charges will be withdrawn.
INCONSISTENT DATA ACROSS ONTARIO
The data regarding the number of drug possession charges that have been dropped between July 2020 to June 2021 is inconsistent across the various courthouses in Ontario. It is unclear why there are differences in the numbers of withdrawn cases across the province.
The following numbers are a few examples that illustrate the pre-trial withdrawal rates of drug possession charges across Ontario:
- Brampton – 886 cases stayed or withdrawn;
- Newmarket – 877 cases stayed or withdrawn
- Hamilton – 846 cases stayed or withdrawn;
- Barrie – 572 cases stayed or withdrawn;
- Old City Hall (Toronto) – 448 cases stayed or withdrawn;
- Brantford – 277 cases stayed or withdrawn;
- Guelph – 264 cases stayed or withdrawn;
- Peterborough – 61 cases stayed or withdrawn.
CITY OF TORONTO SEEKS EXEMPTION TO DECRIMINALIZE DRUG USE
Pressure is building to decriminalize drugs in Canada as overdose deaths hit new highs in stemming from the toxic illegal drug supply and social isolation and stress caused by the pandemic.
According to federal data, nearly 7,000 opioid toxicity deaths were reported between April 2020 and March 2021 in Canada. This is an increase of 88% compared to the year prior. The most deaths are being reported in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario.
In Ontario, rates of fatal opioid overdoses increased by 60% since the beginning of the pandemic. It is estimated that 6,819 individuals have died of opioid overdoses between 2016 and 2020 in Ontario.
According to Ontario’s science table, these numbers may not reflect those from racialized and marginalized communities. They report that there are many reasons for the continued health crisis.
“Factors that may have contributed to rising rates of opioid-related harm during the COVID-19 pandemic include pandemic-related stress, social isolation, and mental illness, which in turn resulted in changes in drug use behaviours; border and travel restrictions that created a more erratic and volatile unregulated drug supply; and reduced accessibility of addiction, mental health, and harm reduction services.”
Last summer, mayors from B.C. signed a letter in support of the city of Vancouver seeking Health Canada’s approval to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs.
A similar request is being made by the city of Toronto. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (“CAMH”), Canada’s largest mental health teaching hospital, has joined the fight to decriminalize all illicit drugs across Canada. They specially request that this be a comprehensive approach that does not only apply to certain regions or specific substance exemptions.
Prime Minister Trudeau recently stated:
“We’ve seen a number of provinces, particularly British Columbia, very interested in moving forward on some forms of decriminalization and we are absolutely open to working with them.”
Dr. Ginetta Salvalaggio, an associate professor at the University of Alberta, agrees with a comprehensive approach to the opioid health crisis. He stated:
“The drug supply that is currently circulating is, if anything, just getting from bad to worse, and that’s not going to get solved by trying to take what’s currently on the street off. So we need a much more comprehensive approach.”
As both the Canadian government and the judiciary respond to the opioid crisis in Canada, Barrison Law will continue to provide updates through our blog.
CONTACT THE CRIMINAL DEFENCE LAWYERS AT AFFLECK & BARRISON LLP IN OSHAWA IF YOU HAVE BEEN CHARGED WITH A DRUG RELATED OFFENCE
If you have been arrested for a drug related crime, the next steps you take may impact the rest of your life. A conviction for a drug related offence can result in serious consequences. It is important to have the attention of a skilled criminal lawyer to help build your defence and ensure you are protected.
At Barrison Law, we endeavor to provide our clients with exceptional legal services and offer a free initial consultation. We are happy to answer any questions you may have regarding hiring a criminal defence lawyer. Our skilled team has extensive experience defending a wide range of criminal charges. Please contact our office online or at 905-404-1947 to schedule a free consultation. We have a 24-hour phone service for your convenience. Our experienced lawyers are available to handle your defence with diligence and expertise.