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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
Volume I - General Orientation

Chapter 3- Our Guiding Principles

Criteria for distinction

Professor Pires proposes seven criteria allowing for distinctions to be made between the various kinds of prohibitive behaviours in criminal law.



Seven criteria to distinguish between offences

Nature of the offence

Is this an issue of a conflict or an exchange?

Capacity of the law for discernment

Can the law see a victim and distinguish them from the deviant?


Is the actor able to appreciate the consequences of his actions on another person?

Limitation on natural liberty

Is it possible that there could be limitation of the freedom of the person to act?

Justification of the offence

Must the law turn to outside knowledge in order to justify the enacted standard?

Application of the law

Does application of the law require any active intervention?

Effects of the law

Can the effects of applying of the law compromise the standard?



We will briefly examine these, one at a time.


The nature of the offence

In order for there to be an offence, harm must have been done, which brings us to the victim. As we said above, in the broadest sense, criminal law sees society as the ultimate victim of any offence. The direct victim of an assault or theft is a witness, in the technical sense of the law. However, at a concrete level, the law recognizes direct victims. In certain cases, the concept of victim falls somewhere between the two: it is the neighbourhood or the surrounding area, for example, in the case of nuisance caused by solicitation for the purposes of prostitution. However, these nuisance situations are themselves at the limit of criminal law, in a sort of gray area between standard offences and two-sided offences. 

What is remarkable is that the criminal law cannot take all three levels into account at the same time. If it recognizes the direct victim, then society becomes invisible. If it considers the neighbourhood, it becomes even more evident that it can no longer recognize a direct victim or society as a whole. Finally, and above all, if it takes the perspective of society as a whole, then it loses sight of not only the direct victim, but what is more, it loses its specificity. In effect, in the latter case, one could say that civil law also protects society: without respect for sales contracts and debts, society would go down the drain. 

It is therefore not only the harm caused, nor even the presence of a victim that gives certain acts their criminal character, but the fact that they bear witness to conflict, abuse of power, infringement of one social actor upon another. Obviously, civil law also serves to resolve conflicts, from which comes the need for more criteria.

Capacity of the law for discernment

Is the law able to differentiate a victim from a perpetrator? In the case of standard prohibited behaviours, it generally can. For example, the victim of a homicide can clearly be distinguished from the perpetrator. Of course, there are exceptions to these standard scenarios, for example, where the victims themselves face criminal charges. A case in point would be where a victim of sexual assault is convicted of contempt of court for refusing to testify against her attacker.

When faced with two-sided prohibited behaviours, criminal law is hard-pressed to distinguish the victim from the perpetrator. Or, it finds the perpetrator to be the victim that must be protected from himself. Consequently the perpetrator becomes the victim of his/her own behaviour.

Alternatively, cognisant of the limitations and difficulty involved in punishing the victim - for example, a prostitute - criminal law shifts from the phenomenological world (the facts) to a different mode of reasoning. It moves from an analysis-based mode of reasoning (evidence enabling deduction) to one based on consequentialism or teleology (the goals underlying behaviour). For instance, criminal law justifies its intervention by the need to protect children. Consequently, it loses, and causes us to lose, sight of the (ultimately inexplicable) reasons why the offence was brought before the courts in the first place.



This term refers to the capacity of perpetrators of the offence to recognize –despite “explanations”, denial or other self-justification methods - the harm caused to others by their actions. Even in case of some borderline standard prohibited behaviours, such as cruelty to animals, the perpetrator of the offence – who, for example, has hanged his neighbour’s dog from a tree – may recognize the harm caused by his/her action to the animal’s owner. The criminal act in the case of two-sided prohibited behaviours may be self-destructive, but is not motivated by maliciousness towards others, since it does not create a direct relationship with others. Indeed, the sociologist A. Ehrenberg raises the issue of the absence of a relationship with others exhibited in all types of drug use when interpreted as a form of withdrawal from the world. However, this is already beyond the issue of criminal law into to the realm of political discussion on democracy.

Limitation on natural liberty

We shall deal only briefly with this issue here since it is discussed at greater length later. Suffice it to say, however, that the law places special restrictions on what Kant called the “unfettered freedom of action”: criminal law restricts an individual’s liberty to take the life or property of others. Consequently, it institutes specific rights and freedoms, i.e. the right to enjoy life and property. Fundamental problems arise where the law seeks to restrict the very rights and freedoms that it provides. A case in point is prostitution, where the law seeks to restrict the very right to enjoy one’s own body and the freedom provided for by the law.


Justification of the offence

Criminal law very seldom uses external sources to justify the criminalization of offences. A good example to illustrate this is our original homicide scenario. Criminal law does not refer to sociology, anthropology, history, economics or medicine to establish the various effects of different types of homicides and various ways of taking life. The same rationale can be applied to sexual assaults, theft, fraud, etc. The cognitive component in the justification process is weak. The rationale underpinning the standard prohibited behaviour is deeply rooted in the social relationship. It is quite clear that any society even considering legalizing homicide would become untenable and would cease to be a society at all. Consequently, our society does not question the validity of the criminalization of homicide. The sole issue that arises in some countries, but which was addressed in Canada a long time ago, is the sentence society imposes on murderers.

Quite the opposite situation exists for two-sided prohibited behaviours. They require empirical demonstration and justification with a strong cognitive component. As one might expect, this issue is central to any debate on drugs. Indeed, this report accords a great deal of importance to this matter.

Below professor Pires deals with this issue in graph form.






















As professor Pires points out, the criterion here is not to establish whether there is consensus or “dissensus” on the criminal standard or on the terms relating to the type and possibility of democratic debate but rather to determine whether the source of the legitimacy of the standard is endogenous or exogenous. In the case of standard prohibited behaviours, the source is endogenous. In the case of two-sided prohibited behaviours, it is exogenous. However, the criminal law creation process remains the same, i.e. democratic debate resulting in the adoption of enabling legislation. It is for this reason that it is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that the two types of offences are not in fact of the same nature.


[Translation] The important point to remember is that all two-sided prohibited behaviours to which this criterion applies exhibit certain specific problems. (i) They all have a more precarious, more ideological or more fragile endogenous basis because they are not rooted in a concrete, conflictual deviance and because the norms are not sufficiently detached from certain forms of (purely moral or religious) knowledge or are not sufficiently unaffected by knowledge of facts. (ii) They are therefore more subject to a process of selection from the available knowledge and to the actual value of the knowledge that we select or that is available to us in respect of them at a particular point in time. That means that a critical and serious examination of the knowledge is of crucial importance. (iii) They are, to all intents and purposes, more polemical and subject to public debate at a particular point in time, and more likely to be based on major cultural or cognitive misapprehensions. [1][14]



Application of the law

In the vast majority of cases involving standard prohibited behaviours, offences are brought to the attention of the police by way of a complaint. Complaints to the police most often involve theft, sexual assault and homicide. Indeed, approximately 90% all offences that come to the attention of the police do so through complaints. In the case of two-sided prohibited behaviours, close to 100% of offences are discovered pro-actively.

One might point to the increase in complaints from people living near cannabis plantations in British Columbia. However, these people’s complaints perhaps deal either with the very real danger of fire – since the illegal nature of cannabis production forces producers to illegally tap into electricity lines – or with pressure on them from criminals to keep quiet – also because producers are forced to operate illegally.

The pro-active application of the criminal law in the case of two-sided prohibited behaviours has harmful consequences, including social and human costs but also the possibility of discriminatory application of the law or police corruption. This raises the question of whether the endogenous basis of the offence warrants these consequences.


Effects of the law

The effects of the law stem, to a certain extent, from the previous criterion and all the others before it. This criterion relates to the legitimacy of the standard. The difficulties and criticism arising from pro-active police action, changes in social normativity or in the knowledge base, make the law counter-productive, which, in turn, raises questions sui generis as to its basic tenets and legitimacy.

We have compiled Professor Pires’ suggested criteria under three headings. Each criterion includes an “action-related” and a “law-related” element, which can be used in distinguishing between various criminal offences.

Nature of the offence. The action here refers to the relationship between the “victim” and the “perpetrator”, i.e. are they in a conflict or exchange-type situation? The law-related criterion focuses on establishing whether criminal law is able to distinguish between the victim and the perpetrator.

Justification. The action in this case is to determine whether perpetrators are able to recognize the harm caused to others by their actions. The legal aspect of the equation deals with determining the basis of the legitimacy of the standard.

Operativity. The action relates to identifying whether the application of the appropriate standard is triggered by the victim or witness or whether pro-active action is required by law-enforcement agencies. The legal side of the equation is to establish whether the enforcement of the standard could potentially sabotage itself.

It is our view that the analysis of Criminal Code offences based on these three criteria addresses the fundamental issue of whether limiting the liberty of an individual to act is justified in the criminal law. It is for this reason that we are less concerned about the criteria themselves than about the result of the application of theses criteria to the criminal law standard.

 Application to illegal drugs issues

Are illegal-drug-related offences two-sided prohibited behaviours under criminal law? Undoubtedly so.

The offence created implies an exchange-type situation and it is relatively unimportant whether the subject of the transaction is a prohibited substance or not. It is deemed to be a consented exchange between two parties. In the case of cannabis use – or the personal use of the opium or cocaine that just happens to be growing in my garden, - no exchange with another party takes place. Nevertheless, possession is prohibited in Canada, as is use in certain other countries.

Criminal law is hard pressed to find a victim. With respect to impaired driving endangering the lives of others, the Criminal Code contains a provision for the punishment of an individual operating a vehicle under the influence of any substance. The argument that cannabis poses enforcement difficulties is not valid. The same difficulties apply to driving under the influence of prescription drugs. What about the issue of children? It is difficult to see how cannabis use harms children, except where an “uncontrolled” market, brought about either by a lack of regulations or by the current illegality of cannabis fostering illegal markets, does cause harm to children.

In relation to referentiality, a user or even a seller does not see himself or herself as causing harm to others. At least, this is the case for cannabis derivatives. Of course, a situation where “grass” is mixed with other substances and adulterated substances are sold to users is reminiscent of the era of prohibition and is one of the reasons why prohibition was scrapped. To justify behavioural standards and the offence, criminal law has to refer to external sources over which – and the interpretation of which – it exerts no control.

The operativity of the standard raises both application problems and on-going questions as to the legitimacy of the standard itself.

On the whole, the legal basis of the criminal law is weak where the prescribed standard (1) does not concern a relationship with others and where the characteristics of the relationship do not create a victim and a perpetrator able to recognize his/her actions; (2) has to find its justification outside fundamental social relationships; and (3) results in a form of enforcement, the harmful effects of which, undermine and challenge the very legitimacy of the law. (Where criminal law is involved in these issues, the very standard prescribed by the law makes the perpetrator the victim and tries to protect him from himself, which it can do only by producing a never-ending stream of knowledge, which remains constantly out of his reach.)

This analysis indicates to us that only offences involving significant direct danger to others should be matters of criminal law.





[1][14]  Pires, A.P., (2002) op. cit., page 59.

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