Canada’s current approach to substances

Drug policies founded on racism and fear

Canada’s drug laws Canada’s drug laws Canada’s drug laws

Canadian drug policy is multi-jurisdictional and involves interactions between many areas of policy, including social, criminal, and economic.1 While the criminal law (including policing and sentencing) plays a major role, drug policy decisions can be closely related to and affect policies in other areas like housing, immigration, social assistance, citizenship, and education. For example, rules around who is allowed to live in social housing, decisions about health services, or rules around expelling youth from school for substance use will all affect people who use drugs.

The early history of Canada’s approach to drugs reveals that policies were largely driven by moral beliefs around people who used them and relied heavily on the criminal law to curb illegal substance use. Rather than being benign tools aimed at promoting the health of Canadians, drug laws introduced in the early 1900s were meant for social control and targeted certain groups of people, including Asian immigrants, people of colour, and Indigenous people.2 

Increasingly, over the 20th century, drug laws became more comprehensive, with a greater role for law enforcement to address concerns about the number of young people consuming substances in the 1960s. This led to a dramatic increase in the number of people charged for drug-related activities.3 From 2006 to 2015, criminal penalties became more severe, including the introduction of the first mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related activities and a concerted movement towards policies focused on criminal justice. These policies directly impeded life-saving harm reduction efforts. The law turned people who use drugs into the “bad guys,” and this narrative had devastating impacts on the health and wellbeing of society, while doing little to decrease actual substance use.

Booths with mirrors separated by dividers
Insite, North America’s first sanctioned supervised consumption site

Currently, drug policies are informed by the Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy (CDSS) that was introduced in December 2016. The CDSS outlines a four-pillar, evidence-based approach that includes prevention, treatment, enforcement, and harm reduction, and “guides the federal government’s response to all substance use issues, including the opioid overdose crisis, and the move towards the legalization and strict regulation of cannabis.” 

The federal government notes that “[t]here is a growing agreement in Canada that problematic substance use is a health issue that can be prevented, managed, and treated, and that requires a health-focused response,” and that the goal of the CDSS is “to protect the health and safety of all Canadians by minimizing harms from substance use for individuals, families, and communities.”4

(Source: Health Canada; Canadian Drugs and Substances Strategy)

Drug policy mainly falls under federal law; namely, the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) and more recently the Cannabis Act, which moved cannabis into a legally regulated system. The CDSA controls the production, distribution (trafficking), and possession of drugs that are listed on various “schedules,” which are lists of prohibited substances categorized by their perceived level of risk and medical utility. These schedules determine the severity of criminal punishment for people charged with offences involving the substances listed on them. 

The CDSA creates a number of criminal penalties for activities that contravene the law, including for the possession and distribution of a scheduled substance. The seriousness of penalties relates to the perceived levels of harm of each drug, rather than the actual harms. For example, many of the substances scheduled in the CDSA are recognized to be far less harmful than legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco, which are not scheduled at all and are widely available. However, authorization for activities involving these drugs may be granted for medical or scientific purposes, or if the activity is in the public interest.

“[T]here is a growing agreement in Canada that problematic substance use is a health issue that can be prevented, managed, and treated, and that requires a health-focused response.”

~ Government of Canada

“Prohibition” is the system that results through these laws forbidding access to drugs outside of narrow medical and scientific contexts. Despite trying to control drugs through these laws and the large amount of public money spent on preventing the possession, distribution, and production of drugs in Canada and across borders—estimated to be about $2 billion a year—many drugs that are technically “illegal” (i.e. listed on schedules) continue to be widely available. In short, the current laws are failing to do what they were designed to do: prevent access to illegal drugs.

Canada is not unique. Despite governments spending an estimated $100 billion (US) in law enforcement-led approaches to combat drugs, resulting in a large number of people arrested and imprisoned under the criminal law, the global illegal market for drugs is bigger than ever. Prohibition has been a failure.

[1] [2] More Harm than Good: Boyd, Carter, MacPherson

[3] Panic and indifference: the politics of Canada’s drug laws: a study in the sociology of law by Giffen, P. J; Endicott, Shirley Jane, 1930-; Boorman, Sylvia, 1923-; Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse

[4] Ibid. Background document to CDSS consult

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The Regulation Project is an international collaboration to advocate and educate for the legal regulation of drugs.