Drug policy of Canada

Canada's drug regulations are covered by the Food and Drug Act and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. In relation to controlled and restricted drug products the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act establishes eight schedules of drugs and new penalties for the possession, trafficking, exportation and production of controlled substances as defined by the Governor-in-Council. Drug policy of Canada has traditionally favoured punishment of the smallest of offenders, but this convention was partially broken in 1996 with the passing of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.[1]


Until 1908 the use of narcotics, opiates, Alcohol and Tobacco especially, in Canada was unregulated but were on the way of regulation.[2] From the 1850s onwards, Chinese immigrants came to British Columbia in droves, establishing opium dens in their isolated communities. Canadian employers saw the Chinese immigrants as a source of cheap labour, and the government viewed opium consumption as another way to gain revenue, imposing a tax on opium factories in 1871. However, with the decline of the gold rush in the 1880s resentment towards the Chinese grew, as unemployed Canadians could not compete with cheap Chinese labour.[3] Additionally, Japanese immigration to Canada began to rise sharply, resulting in demonstrations against Asian labour. In 1907, there was a particularly large demonstration against Asian immigrants in Vancouver's Chinatown.[4] In response to the demonstrations, Deputy Minister of Labour Mackenzie King travelled to British Columbia and interviewed two opium merchants. King was concerned with the growing numbers of white opium users and believed that Canada had to set the precedent on drug use worldwide. The following year the government enacted the Opium Act of 1908, which made it an offence to import, manufacture, possess or sell opium, while not making it an imprisonable offence.[2] The same year, Parliament passed the Proprietary and Patent Medicine Act 1908, prohibiting the use of cocaine in medicines and requiring pharmaceutical companies to list on the label the ingredients of any medicine if heroin, morphine, or opium was part of the contents.[3][4]

The 1908 drug law created a black market for opium, and law enforcement officials believed that the only way to stop this black market was through imprisonment for offenders, so the Opium and Drugs Act 1911 was passed by Parliament.[1] This created harsher penalties for drug offenders and also expanded the list of prohibited drugs to include morphine and cocaine, while cannabis was included in 1923.[1] During World War I, all provinces enacted prohibition, a decision repealed in all areas except Prince Edward Island by 1929.[5] In 1921 the penalties of the Opium and Drugs Act were expanded to provide for a seven-year prison sentence for crimes committed under the Act. The amendment also made it an offence to be in a building that contained narcotics, notably shifting the burden of proof to the defendant for this crime. Whipping and deportation became penalties for violations of the 1911 Act in 1922.[4]

Canada's 1920s drug policy was strikingly different from that of the present day. Drug users were considered more as criminals than as those with an illness, and the enforcement of drug laws was given precedence over the treatment of offenders.[2] Additionally, almost three-quarters of those convicted by the 1911 drug laws were Chinese in 1922.[2][4] This led many white Canadians to believe that the drug laws had no effect on them; they thought they only applied to those of Asiatic descent.[4]

In 1929 the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act was enacted, establishing harsher penalties for drug users.[5] This was to become the main drug regulation in Canada until the late 1960s. In 1954, the penalty for drug trafficking was doubled from seven to fourteen years.[1] During that decade, the media published highly sensationalized reports of drug use amongst youths, even though the rate of drug use in Canada was actually declining. In 1961, the Narcotic Control Act made the possession of cannabis, amongst other drugs, an indictable offence and made the minimum sentence for drug trafficking fourteen years (as opposed to the previous maximum sentence).[1][2]

Between 1969 and 1973 the Commission of Inquiry into the Non Medical Use of Drugs (or the Le Dain Commission) examined the use of narcotics in Canada and recommended that the drug laws were changed to become more lenient and gradually decriminalize illicit drugs. Although consensus in Parliament appeared to be gradually turning in favour of implementing the Commission's recommendations, the drug laws remained unchanged, although a bill to remove cannabis from the Narcotic Control Act and create a new Part V of the Food and Drugs Act reducing sentences for all offences did pass the Senate but failed in the House of Commons.[1][2]

In 1988, advocating the use of cannabis or cannabis-related products (including hemp) became a crime punishable by $100,000 for a first offence and $300,000 for a second offence, meaning that simply publishing an opinion article with a favourable position on cannabis became illegal. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws Canada's office in Ontario was raided by police after being charged with breaking Section 462.2 of the Criminal Code for handing out brochures advocating the legalization of cannabis. In 1994, the Ontario Court of Justice ruled that Section 462.2 stifled freedom of expression and overturned the ban on literature, taking effect only in Ontario. The same year, an Ontario farmer was allowed to grow ten acres of cannabis on his property to research its agricultural potential.[1][2]

In 1996 the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act was passed. This law repealed the Narcotic Control Act and Parts III and IV of the Food and Drug Act (parts dealing with the advertisement of controlled substances). This Act classified drugs into eight schedules, I to VIII. While the punishments for trafficking illicit drugs in Schedules I and II increased to a maximum of life imprisonment, the penalties for the possession of drugs in Schedule VIII (up to 30g of cannabis and 1g of hashish) decreased to a maximum six months imprisonment and/or a maximum fine of $1000.[6]

Since the enactment of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, various courts have struck down parts of the law and amendments have been passed by Parliament. In 2001, Canada became the first country in the world to legalize the use of cannabis for the terminally ill[1] and three years later the Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler announced that legislation is being proposed in the House of Commons to allow for lesser penalties for the possession of cannabis, while toughening penalties for large drug operations.


While street prices of cocaine in Canada is higher than they are in South American and East Asian countries; in the four-year period of 1997 to 2001 the street price of the drug fell by almost thirteen US dollars a gram, from $94.3/gram to $81.6/gram.[7] However, since 1995, the Canadian crime rate has been decreasing, from 131 persons per 100,000 incarcerated in 1995 to 107 persons per 100,000 in 2004.[8] Canada is a producer and exporter of both cannabis and ecstasy, a trend that harsher penalties for those caught has failed to stop.[9]

Recently, the idea of drug courts has gained popularity in Canada, numbering in the hundreds. These drug courts attempt to divert those that violate controlled drugs regulations from prisons into treatment programs. The Canadian model is based on the American drug court system, which aimed to reduce prison overcrowding after it was found that up to three-quarters of the prison population growth could be attributed to drug offenders. One example of a Canadian drug court is found in Toronto, where one has been operating since 1998. Of the 284 drug offenders referred to the Toronto drug court, over two-thirds have been expelled from the program.[10]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Timeline on Canadian Cannabis Laws. Ontario Cannabis Activist Network. Retrieved May 21, 2009.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Perspectives on Canadian Drug Policy Volume 1. John Howard Society. Retrieved on May 21, 2009.
  3. 1 2 Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy Schaffer Library of Drug Policy. Retrieved May 21, 2009.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 Heroin Prohibition in Canada. Cannabis Culture Magazine. Retrieved May 21, 2009.
  5. 1 2 Cherry, et al (2002). Substance abuse: a global view. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group.
  6. Controlled Drugs and Substances Act 1996. Department of Justice, Government of Canada. Retrieved May 21, 2009.
  7. Global Illicit Drug Trends. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Retrieved May 21, 2009.
  8. Report on Prison Population. OECD. Retrieved May 21, 2009.
  9. Canada: CIA World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved May 21, 2009.
  10. Toronto Drug Treatment Court. Cynthia Kirkby. Retrieved May 21, 2009.
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