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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
Volume 2 - Policies and Practices In Canada

Chapter 14

Police Practices

Views on police priorities regarding enforcement of laws on illicit drugs are, at the very least, inconsistent, if not completely contradictory. Some believe that too much police time, effort and resources are spent in investigating illicit drug offences and, more specifically, possession offences – even more specifically, cannabis possession offences. Others–including the police themselves – claim that police priorities are already focused on traffickers and producers, and that possession charges are laid as a result of police presence to deal with other criminal activity. Thus, they maintain that the vast majority of cannabis possession charges are incidental to other police responsibilities.

This chapter will review the key organizations that are responsible for enforcing Canada’s current illicit drugs legislation, the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA). It will include a discussion of the powers they have been granted, and the investigative techniques used, in relation to illicit drug investigations. Finally, key police-related statistics will be explored. This information should help clarify some of the misconceptions related to enforcement of laws on illicit drugs.



Enforcement agencies


Several organizations play a role in enforcing Canada’s illicit drug legislation.  This section will review three: the RCMP, the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency (CCRA), and provincial and municipal police forces. These key players co‑operate with many other organizations when required, such as National Defence, Fisheries and Oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard.



The RCMP’s role and mandate is to enforce laws, prevent crime, and maintain peace, order and security. The RCMP is involved mainly in four components of Canada’s Drug Strategy: enforcement and control; national co‑ordination; international co-operation; and prevention programming.

At the national level, the RCMP’s drug enforcement responsibilities are primarily carried out by two groups:


v     The Drug Enforcement Branch: with approximately 900 employees, this branch is responsible for drug enforcement in Canada through its head office in Ottawa and its divisional drug enforcement units located throughout the country. The Branch also provides rapid communication to members of the international drug enforcement community.

v     Integrated Proceeds of Crime Initiative: with about 415 employees, this group is responsible for investigating persons for proceeds of crime and seizing assets obtained through criminal activities. With an estimated 90 per cent of seizures related to drugs, it is primarily a drug-related initiative. The 13 units are staffed with a mix of: federal, provincial, and municipal police; Justice counsel; customs officers; tax investigators; asset managers; and forensic accountants. Cases tend to be complex and lengthy.


These two services also receive assistance from other RCMP sections such as intelligence and other specialized investigation services, including electronic and physical surveillance. Their current priorities lie in the investigation and arrest of upper echelon criminal organizations, involved in the drug trade, and in the seizing of proceeds of crime. The RCMP has adopted an intelligence-driven approach and conducts project-oriented investigations–for example, focusing on organized crime. It gathers information that is fed through its intelligence process to identify the main threats across the country. National priorities are based on these threat assessments so that resources will be focussed on the areas of greatest risk to Canadians. National priorities are reassessed, modified and retargeted based on gathered intelligence. Within those national priorities – for example, outlaw motorcycle gangs – particular groups will be specifically targeted. This approach has resulted in cases that are complex and lengthy and consume significant resources. Many of these investigations can take many years to come to fruition.

When it appeared before the Committee in October 2001, the RCMP set out the following national priorities:


Our current strategic national priorities are outlaw motorcycle gangs, Asian-based organized crime, Italian-based organized crime, and Eastern European-based organized crime. These are national targets; they are not drug targets. These are the RCMP national targets. These groups are involved in all commodity areas. However, you will notice that all four groups are involved in illicit drugs [1][1]


The RCMP works closely with other national and international enforcement agencies in its efforts to reduce the supply of drugs in Canada. In this function, it will regularly participate in joint forces operations–which can be permanent working groups or temporary operations aimed at a specific target–to co-operatively investigate criminal activity and exchange intelligence. Liaison is maintained with provincial and municipal police departments, Interpol, the United Nations, the Organization of American States, National Defence, Fisheries and Oceans, Correctional Service of Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard, as well as Customs authorities and drug enforcement agencies worldwide, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI and U.S. Customs.

The RCMP is also involved in drug prevention and has established a Drug Awareness Service. With a budget of $4 million and 31 employees, this Service is responsible for going into the community to educate students, parents, athletes, coaches, employees, employers and community groups. The RCMP–including all personnel and not only the 31 full-time employees–makes over 10,000 presentations per year. Programs include Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE)[2][2], the Aboriginal Shields Program, the Two-way Street: Parents, Kids and Drugs, and the Drugs and Sport Program.

In addition to its federal responsibilities, the RCMP is involved in local enforcement as part of the provincial and municipal policing responsibilities it performs under contract. Sgt. MacEachern, Drug Enforcement Coordinator in New Brunswick, provided the following explanation:


The RCMP has a contractual obligation to the Province of New Brunswick and, as such, we provide policing services to all rural areas of the province, a large number of the smaller service districts and small municipalities, and as well a significant number of larger municipalities. In addition, we have federal law enforcement units throughout the province, and for drug enforcement we have offices and suboffices in Bathurst, Moncton, Saint-Leonard, Saint John and Fredericton.


Simply put, our federal enforcement personnel dedicate themselves to larger scale investigations involving organized criminal groups at the provincial, interprovincial, national and international levels. Our provincial or contract detachments are tasked with targeting local or street level drug traffickers, but often, in the interests of addressing a significant local trafficking situation, our federal units combine resources with our detachments to pursue a specific goal. [3][3]


While enforcement statistics are discussed in greater detail in following sections of this chapter, it is interesting to note that, according to the following chart from the Auditor General’s 2001 Report,[4][4] the RCMP was responsible for approximately 24% of all charges under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in 1999, with only 4% of the charges relating to its federal policing services. In this chart, the number of persons charged is according to the most serious offence in a given incident and means persons charged by police or persons against whom the police recommended charges be laid.


Charges under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in 1999

The Canada Customs and Revenue Agency [5][5]

The CCRA–currently with over 8000 employees–has always played a key role in drug enforcement in Canada and is responsible for intercepting drugs at the point of entry. This is a significant task because many of the illicit drugs found in Canada are smuggled across our borders – although this statement may be less accurate with respect to cannabis, because of local production.

The Customs Act grants customs officers certain powers. Section 98 authorizes an officer to search a person arriving in Canada if the officer suspects on reasonable grounds that the person has secreted on or about his person: anything in respect of which the Act has been or might be contravened; anything that would afford evidence with respect to a contravention of this Act; or any goods the importation or exportation of which is prohibited, controlled or regulated under the Act or any other Act of Parliament. In addition, section 99 authorizes examination of goods that have been imported into Canada.  

The CCRA deals with several types of contraband, including firearms, alcohol, tobacco and drugs. Like that of the RCMP, its work is intelligence-based, using information gathered through its own extensive intelligence network and through other enforcement agencies (both nationally and internationally). Thus, its contraband and intelligence program works with national and international enforcement agencies to develop information, indicators and trends to help identify suspicious shipments and/or persons before they arrive at the border.

The enforcement programs are based on strategic planning, risk management, information gathering and dissemination, partnerships, and effective training of personnel. The Contraband and Intelligence Services Directorate–with illegal drugs as its first priority–is responsible for the design, development, and implementation of strategies with regard to anti-smuggling and intelligence programs. Due to increasing volume, the CCRA implemented the Customs Action Plan–modernizing customs processes and introducing programs based on risk management.

The CCRA contraband and intelligence program is made up of intelligence officers, analysts, and databases to support front-line customs inspectors in identifying high-risk persons and goods at our borders. These units are responsible for collecting and developing intelligence and disseminating it to the line officers across the country.

The CCRA maintains alliances with other customs administrations, national and international law enforcement agencies, and external stakeholders in connection with contraband, intelligence, strategic export and counter-terrorism programs. It has also built important partnerships with other law enforcement agencies in Canada, such as the RCMP and provincial and municipal police, and around the world with other customs administrations and law enforcement agencies such as the United States Customs Service, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the World Customs Organization, the Caribbean Customs Law Enforcement Council, and Interpol. The CCRA regularly participates in joint-force operations of both short- and long-term duration. For example, the Integrated Border Enforcement Teams (IBETS) is a multi-agency law enforcement initiative between Canada and the United States to address cross-border crimes. In addition, the CCRA and police pool resources on a daily basis with local, state and provincial enforcement agencies to combine expertise and intelligence. The CCRA is also part the Integrated Proceeds of Crime initiative discussed above.

Specific activities in relation to drug enforcement include:


v     Use of highly sophisticated contraband detection equipment to conduct non-intrusive examinations to assist in the identification of narcotics – X-ray systems, including baggage, mobile truck and rolling cargo systems; ion scans used to detect trace amounts of narcotics on almost any surface; detector dog teams deployed across the country; contraband detection kits that include a number of useful tools such as probes and fibrescopes; and one submersible remote-operated vehicle used to detect narcotics and other contraband attached to the hull of ships, below the water level.

v     Emphasis on training its customs inspectors in the area of contraband enforcement.

v     Use of several enforcement systems and databases, both internal and external, which allow customs officers and inspectors to identify the level of risk of travellers, carriers and/or drivers.  

v     Deployment of dedicated enforcement personnel to enhance intelligence and interdiction in the regions. Regional Intelligence Officers work with local police authorities, targeters, investigators and customs officers to identify high-risk movement across the border. Flexible Response Teams consist of highly trained customs officers who have been placed across Canada to perform monitoring and compliance verification activities, as well as sampling stints on travellers chosen on a random basis. Regional Intelligence Analysts analyze large seizures to identify links to organized crime; they also conduct threat assessments based on trends, and help identify future risk.


The CCRA estimates that it is responsible for approximately 50% of all drug seizures in Canada.


Provincial and municipal police

Provincial and municipal police forces handle the majority of drug cases in Canada. They are involved primarily in enforcing illicit drug legislation at the street level. In addition, members of these forces are often involved in joint operations with the RCMP and/or the CCRA and other enforcement agencies. For example, the Committee was informed of joint operations currently being run with the RCMP–and in certain cases other enforcement agencies–and the Toronto Police Service, the Vancouver Police Department and the Regina Police Service.  



[1][1] R..G. Lesser, Chief Superintendent, RCMP, Proceedings of the Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, Senate of Canada, First Session, Thirty-seventh Parliament, 2001, Issue no. 8, page 11.

[2][2]  DARE is discussed in greater detail in Chapter 17.

[3][3] Presentation submitted to the Committee on 5 June 2002.

[4][4] Report of the Auditor General of Canada to the House of Commons, 2001, Chapter 11, “Illicit Drugs: The Federal Government’s Role,” p. 11.

[5][5] This section relies to a great extent on the testimony of Mark Connolly, Director General, Contraband and Intelligence Services Directorate, Customs Branch, Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, Proceedings of the Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, Senate of Canada, First Session, Thirty-seventh Parliament, 2001, Issue no. 8, pages 33-39.

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