CCSA releases new policy brief: Decriminalization, Options and Evidence


Decriminalization: Options and Evidence

Rebecca Jesseman, M.A., and Doris Payer, Ph.D.

Executive Summary

A growing body of evidence suggests that decriminalization is an effective way to mitigate the harms of substance use and the policies and practices used to deal with it, especially those harms associated with criminal justice prosecution for simple possession. This policy brief reviews the various ways in which decriminalization of controlled substances is being interpreted and implemented internationally and in Canada.

Decriminalization is a policy strategy in which non-criminal penalties, such as fines, are available for designated activities, such as possession of small quantities of a controlled substance. It has been proposed as a way to reduce the harms associated with the opioid crisis. An understanding of decriminalization starts by recognizing that it is not a single approach, but a range of policies and practices.

This brief will inform policy makers, decision makers, analysts and advisors in the health, social and criminal justice sectors by:

Defining key concepts;

 Illustrating examples of informal (de facto) and formal (de jure) applications of decriminalization, including harm reduction services, police diversion and national policy approaches;

 Identifying considerations for evaluation and monitoring of applied decriminalization approaches;

 Summarizing lessons learned from international and Canadian experience; and

 Proposing decriminalization options for application to the current Canadian context.

Key Findings

Recognizing that substance use is a complex health issue with social, economic and public safety impacts is fundamental to developing comprehensive and effective responses.

 Decriminalization encompasses a range of policies and practices that can be tailored and combined to respond to particular contexts and to address specific objectives.

 The growing body of evidence on various approaches to decriminalization provides a valuable source of lessons learned to inform the development of policy and practice.

 Gaps in knowledge about the impact of decriminalization approaches need to be filled by conducting rigorous evaluations and making data and results accessible.

The Issue

Substance use patterns and prevalence, and its associated harms evolve over time. To address changing contexts, strategies to deal with substance use must change as well. The current Canadian context is marked by an opioid crisis, with deaths due to opioid overdose reaching unprecedented levels. The crisis highlights the need for agile and innovative responses informed by evidence.

Decriminalization is an evidence-based policy strategy to reduce the harms associated with the criminalization of illicit drugs. For those who use illicit drugs, these harms include criminal records, stigma, high-risk consumption patterns, overdose and the transmission of blood-borne disease.

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. It is not a single approach or intervention; rather it describes a range of principles, policies and practices that can be implemented in various ways.


Over the past few decades, various decriminalization strategies have been implemented both in Canada and in other countries, including Australia, the United States, Portugal and the Czech Republic. Decriminalization is receiving increased attention in Canada as a possible substance use strategy. Decriminalization measures are being considered to help address the opioid crisis, including the contamination of illicit drugs with fentanyl, and were earlier proposed as alternatives to legalizing non-medical cannabis.

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