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Garrison working to support drug users, drop criminal possession charges

This story was originally published in The Westshore newsletter, July 7, 2022.

Terry Marion at AVI

Terry Marion was Westshore AVI's first client four years ago. He became a part-time staff member, peer support leader, and drug safety educator. (📸 Zoë Ducklow)

Clients, staff, family, and supporters met last week at Westshore AVI clinic to say farewell. The primary care clinic geared toward drug users on the Westshore has closed its doors. Most of the doctors have transitioned to the new Community Health Centre, and AVI clinic clients and staff said they were hopeful the new health centre will be able to meet the same need.

One of those gathered was Randall Garrison, the NDP MP for Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke, who has been a long time supporter of the clinic and other initiatives to support drug users. Years ago when he was a municipal councillor in Esquimalt (2008-2011), he attended a meeting about drug enforcement. "We could just decriminalize drug use," he suggested. Reporters nearly did a double take, he recalled: "Did you just say…?"

Now, over a decade later, BC is getting ready to do just that, albeit in a limited and temporary way. A three-year trial of decriminalizing the possession of 2.5 grams of illicit drugs will start in January. Federally, meanwhile, the Liberals are trying to repeal mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession, among other minor offences. The minority government needed NDP support to pass Bill C-5, so they reached out to Garrison, the New Democrats’ official justice critic.

Removing mandatory minimums is one thing—but what about the criminal record they come with, Garrison asked. A criminal record can be debilitating for people who already have odds stacked against them, he told The Westshore.

"Indigenous and racialized Canadians are vastly over-represented among the more than 250,000 Canadians with criminal records from drug possession," Garrison said. "Removing those records will eliminate significant barriers to housing, employment, volunteering, and travel for those whose only crime was being in possession of drugs for their own use."

So Garrison negotiated an addition to the bill: Drug possession charges will automatically be dropped from the record after two years.

Making it automatic is critical, he said. Just look at the number of people who have been pardoned for cannabis possession after it was legalized: 484 over two years, from Aug. 1, 2019 to Oct. 1, 2021. When cannabis use was legalized, the government estimated 250,000 people have cannabis-related criminal records. The problem is the process to get a pardon is long, bureaucratic, and requires lawyers.

"The people most affected are the least likely to be able to go through a long process like that," he said.

If this bill passes the Senate, the record from a drug possession crime will automatically become hidden after two years. The information will technically still be there, but won’t show up on a criminal record check. Parliament passed Bill C-5 days before this farewell gathering in Langford, and it now lies with the Senate for final approval.