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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



The following sections will review key criminal statistics related to enforcement of illicit drug legislation. This information must be carefully interpreted. It is generally thought that police-reported crime statistics are much more a reflection of police activity than actual societal changes, particularly in the case of consensual type offences. As in many other drug related areas, Canadian statistics are fairly weak–for example, other than fairly basic information, it is very difficult if not impossible to identify some of the essential characteristics of individuals entering the criminal justice system.  


Reported incidents [1][67]

Reported incidents are incidents that come to the attention of the police and are captured and forwarded to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics according to a nationally approved set of common crime categories and definitions. Thus the actual number of drug offences would be much higher, since it can be assumed that most drug offences do not come to the attention of police. As with other consensual types of offence, it is impossible to determine accurately the amount of illegal activity. In addition, the survey counts only the most serious offence committed in each criminal incident, which consequently underestimates the total number of drug-related incidents, particularly offences with less severe penalties. The number of reported incidents should also not be confused with the number of charges that are laid by the police. Because police have wide discretion in whether to lay a charge, it is clear that the number of charges will be lower than the total reported incidents.

The figure below shows trends in the number of incidents reported by police according to the most serious crime. It reveals that, from 1983 to 1995, incidents related to drug offences were relatively stable, hovering around 60,000 per year. However, from 1995 to 2000, there was an increase of approximately 50%, with the number of reported incidents reaching nearly 88,000. In 2001, the number reached 91,920, an increase of 3.3% in relation to the previous year.  



Most of the increase in recent years can be attributed to cannabis-related offences. In 2001, these increased by 5.5% in relation to the previous year. These offences account for the majority of all drug-related offences in Canada. In 2001, cannabis-related offences accounted for 71,624 of reported incidents, almost 77% of all drug-related incidents. Of those 71,624 offences, 70% were for possession, 16% for trafficking, 13% for cultivation, and 1% for importation.[2][68] This means that approximately 54% of all reported drug-related offences are for the possession of cannabis. The following are reported incident rates per 100,000 people for offences related to cannabis, cocaine and all drugs.


Selected drug offences per 100,000, Canada 1994-2001












         -    possession












































Total all drugs


















From 1991 to 2001, the percentage change in rate per 100,000 people for cannabis-related offences is +91.5; for cocaine-related offences, –31.5; for heroin-related offences, –36.1; and for other drugs, +15.0.  This means that, based on the same population, reported cannabis-related offences have almost doubled in the last decade.

In recent years, the cultivation of cannabis, particularly in British Columbia, has raised concerns. This type of offence has also seen a significant increase over the past decade: from a rate of 7 incidents per 100,000 people in 1990 to 29 in 2001.[3][69] A recent report indicates that in British Columbia, the number of growing operations is increasing by an average of 36% per year and average size is increasing at a rate of 40% per year. The report adds that the vast majority of cases coming to the attention of the police in British Columbia do so as a result of public complaints, meaning that the increase in cases is not due to increased proactive police enforcement.[4][70]    

The two figures that follow provide information on the location of reported incidents from 1988 to 1997. Not surprisingly, the most populated provinces are at the top, with Ontario in the lead followed by British Columbia, Quebec and Alberta.  





A better indication of the level of crime in a province, however, is a calculation based on rates per 100,000 population. British Columbia has historically had the highest provincial rate of drug crime in the country. [5][71] For example, in 2001, the rate was 563.5 incidents per 100,000, almost double the national figure of 295.7. The rates for the other provinces and territories are as follows: Newfoundland and Labrador–173.1; Prince Edward Island–192.0; Nova Scotia–218.3; New Brunswick–346.9; Quebec–262.1; Ontario–256.1; Manitoba–215.9; Saskatchewan–278.4; Alberta–235.3; Yukon –478.5; Northwest Territories–597.2; and Nunavut–806.1. It is obvious that the level of drug-related crime varies considerably from one province and territory to another.



From the available data presented in the following figure, it would seem that trafficking and possession charges for drug-related offences have declined noticeably since 1997. It should be remembered that the number of reported incidents (discussed previously) is not equivalent to the number of charges that are laid by the police. In some cases, the police will report a drug incident to Statistics Canada but will decide not to charge the offender. The wide discretion given to police can lead to serious concerns regarding the enforcement of the legislation. These concerns are discussed later in this chapter. The reader should be aware that this figure does not include data from three provinces (New Brunswick, Manitoba and British Columbia) and from one territory (Nunavut). In addition, data from certain courts in Quebec are not included.[6][72]  

Because data from three provinces are not included–in particular, British Columbia–the actual number of drug charges in Canada was actually much higher than the figure suggests. As was previously explained, British Columbia has, in the past, consistently reported the highest rate of drug crime.  



Statistics from 1997 show, however, that with respect to charging drug offenders, British Columbia is more lenient than other provinces:  


Among provinces and territories, police departments in British Columbia reported the lowest charge rate (47%) for drug offences. Only 35% of cannabis incidents and 36% of “other drug” incidents resulted in charges, compared to 79% and 81% for all the other provinces combined. [7][73]  


For example, Superintendent Ward Clapham of the Richmond RCMP indicated that, for possession of marijuana under 30 grams, only 40 people were charged out of 700 reported cases in the year 2000; and in 2001, only 30 people were charged out of 605 reported cases. Once again, it is clear that the enforcement of the legislation varies considerably from one area of the country to another.  

With respect to cannabis offences in 2001, the male population was much more likely to be charged with an offence. For both youths (12 to 17) and adults, 88% of the people charged with cannabis offences are male.[8][74] In addition, while adults are much more likely to be charged than youths, 18% of cannabis-related charges relate to youths.[9][75]

While the previous figure seems to indicate that there were fewer than 20,000 drug-related charges in 1999, the Auditor General’s 2001 report indicates that during that year, just under 50,000 people were charged with drug offences under the CDSA (in cases where the most serious offence was drug-related). One of the drawbacks of recording offence statistics according to the most serious offence is that this leads to severe underreporting of offences, particularly offences with less severe penalties. In the hierarchy of criminal offences (of which there are 152), marijuana offences are ranked as follows: importation or exportation– 44; trafficking of more than 3,000 grams–46; production–52; trafficking of 3,000 grams or less–59; possession of more than 30 grams–120; and possession of 30 grams or less--121.      

Of the approximately 50,000 drug-related charges laid in 1999, cannabis was involved in 70% of the charges. In 43% of the drug-related cases (21,381), the charge was for possession of cannabis. Overall, 54% of the drug offences were for possession. Since the number of reported incidents has continued to climb, one can only assume that today even more people are being charged with drug offences, particularly cannabis offences.

With over 34,000 charges per year for cannabis-related offences and with over 21,000 charges per year for possession of cannabis, can one conclude that police are actively seeking out cannabis possession offences? After reviewing the evidence, we do not believe this to be the case. Nonetheless, over 21,000 people per year enter the criminal justice system in cases where their most serious offence was that of possession of cannabis. It bears repeating that these statistics are based on the most serious offence in a given incident.

Several reasons were advanced to explain the high number of possession offences. Those enforcing the CDSA stated that they do not actively seek out such offences, but rather they are discovered in the normal course of their duties. This was repeated time and time again. While we do not doubt the sincerity of these statements, in certain cases–as will be discussed below–police tactics can be questioned. In addition, we were told that while the offence of trafficking, if it occurs over a period of time, is recorded as one offence–the continuing offence rule–this rule does not apply to possession offences.



While there may be valid reasons for the high incidence of possession charges, many have raised serious concerns with respect to the discretion used by the police in regard to drug-related possession charges – in particular, cannabis possession cases. As mentioned earlier, the number of reported incidents and the charge rate vary considerably from province to province.  

The uneven application of the drug legislation in the various provinces, even within the same province, raises serious concerns. Mr. Kash Heed from the Vancouver Police Department indicated that small-scale possession of any drug in Vancouver is virtually unenforced by the police department unless there are aggravating circumstances. Their focus is on those who profit–traffickers and producers. He added that the number of prosecutions in British Columbia for cannabis possession is quite small in comparison to other provinces. He concluded that total prohibition had “resulted in costly enforcement, alienation of groups of people, discriminatory enforcement, little deterrence in supply, and minimal deterrence of use.” Heed added that, even in British Columbia there are discrepancies–centres outside of Vancouver having higher rates of prosecution for possession of cannabis than does the City of Vancouver.  

We have estimated that approximately 2.5 million people in Canada used cannabis in the last year. In 1999, 21,381 people were charged with the possession of cannabis. This means that only 0.85% of cannabis users were actually charged with possession. It is also important to remember that of the number of people who used cannabis in the last year, many would have used it more than once. As a result, the actual chance of being charged for possession of cannabis in relation to the actual number of offences is in all likelihood much lower than 1%. This certainly raises concerns regarding fairness. In addition, both the effectiveness of the legislation and any deterrent effect it may have are seriously in doubt.

So what are the potential consequences of uneven enforcement of the legislation and unfettered discretion as to whether or not to proceed with laying a charge? Marie‑Andrée Bertrand, referring to a paper prepared by Nicolas Carrier[10][76] stated the following:


A recent qualitative study of members of the Montreal Urban Community Police Department underscores the ambivalence and confusions of frontline police officers and their varied reactions to the “drug problem.” The extent of the problem is perceived quite differently depending on the officers in question and the neighbourhoods they patrol.  In the minds of some, particularly in the case of young drug users and “exchangers”, although “the law is the law” and must undoubtedly be enforced, drug possession and use do not really concern the police. The prohibition is simply not enforceable. It is impossible to determine cases of possession in the absence of search and seizure powers, except “on a hunch” or in arresting suspects for other “crimes”. Once possession cases and drug deals in public places are discovered either by accident or in the course of investigating other offences, police officers react in various ways depending on their professional aspirations. Those seeking promotion and specialization (who want to join the drug or victimless crimes squads) pass the information along to the appropriate divisions. Patrolmen who intend to remain patrolmen close their eyes or question suspects to obtain trafficking information in exchange for promises of immunity, or else take substances abusers to treatment services, call the parents of a minor, etc.  [11][77]


The uneven application of the legislation is one of our greatest concerns, for a variety of reasons. First, there is the danger that this can lead to discriminatory enforcement, where certain people are more likely to be charged than others because of their personal characteristics. While current national statistics do not allow such an analysis, there is some evidence that the law is applied discriminatorily.

The Carrier paper discussed above was the result of interviews with 21 Montreal area patrol officers. It discusses the difficulties of detecting possession offences due to the lack of a “victim,” the discreetness of the offences and the constitutional limits on unwarranted searches. The paper explains that a police officer’s actions depend on several factors, such as how serious the officer perceives the drug problem to be and what are the officer’s career aspirations–those wanting promotions respond more proactively to drug offences than those wishing to remain as patrol officers, who tend to be more reactive. Police are generally frustrated by the limits imposed on searches.  

So how do they go about detecting possession offences? The officers indicated that most possession offences are detected when a person is stopped for another criminal matter–the arrest allowing an officer to conduct a search of the person. On rare occasions, officers detected the offence when a person openly flouted the law.  

Of note, officers also indicated that certain people attracted their attention and some indicated that there are “signs” which lead them to believe that people are in possession of illegal substances. With respect to people in cars, the following factors were mentioned: the appearance of passengers in a vehicle; the vehicle’s model and value; the person’s driving habits; and a computer check of the licence plate indicating that the owner had a criminal record. Officers are allowed to stop people to ensure they have the proper documentation, and this may lead to the discovery of an offence that would result in a search. With respect to pedestrians, the following factors were mentioned: the person is known as a drug user; physical appearance; the person’s activities; associating with other “suspects”; and association with dwellings suspected for trafficking. Certain officers indicated that questioning such suspects can lead to an arrest–for example, an outstanding warrant of arrest–and a search. Officers also indicated that on occasion they selectively applied municipal by-laws and other provincial legislation in order to obtain a person’s name, after which the person can be investigated. If a person refuses to give his or her name, the person may be arrested and searched. Officers also indicated they had used techniques to “go fishing.” While the evidence would not be admissible in court, in certain circumstances it allowed the officer to obtain information from the person in exchange for “not laying a charge,” or allowed the officer to seize the illegal substance.

While this study is of limited scope, it does provide an indication of how police discretion in enforcing drug legislation may lead to discrimination based on factors such as a person’s appearance.

Another concern is the danger of alienating certain groups of society. Those targeted by enforcement may lose respect for police and the criminal justice system in general. Inconsistent legal responses are likely to create an atmosphere that brings the administration of justice into disrepute. As Parliamentarians, we find this unacceptable.  

Finally, there is the basic issue of fairness and justice. No one seems able to explain why some people are charged and others are not. It is not surprising that this legislation faces such fierce criticism.


Customs Act - fines

In general, when one thinks of drug enforcement, one thinks of charges laid by police under the CDSA and seizures made by them. Other legislation can be applied in certain circumstances, however. For example, the Customs Act allows for the seizure of prohibited goods and also of vehicles used in contravention of that act. In this case, a civil "penalty" may be imposed against the importer, because a Customs officer may return the vehicle to the importer only upon payment of the assessed monetary penalty. The penalty is based on the quantity of drugs found.





Hashish oil

Controlled drugs




over 8 grams not over 15 grams

over 2 grams not over 4 grams

over 1 gram or less

over 10 pills not over 20 pills

over 1 dosage not over 4 dosages


1 gram or less $400


over 15 grams not over 30 grams

over 4 grams not over 8 grams

over 1 gram not over 2 grams

over 20 pills not over 40 pills

over 4 dosages not over 8 dosages




over 30 grams not over 60 grams

over 8 grams not over 16 grams

over 2 grams not over 4 grams

over 40 pills not over 60 pills

over 8 dosages not over 12 dosages




over 60 grams not over 100 grams

over 16 grams not over 24 grams

over 4 grams not over 6 grams

over 60 pills not over 80 pills

over 12 dosages not over 16 dosages




over 100 grams not over 150 grams

over 24 grams not over 32 grams

over 6 grams not over 8 grams

over 80 pills not over 110 pills

over 16 dosages not over 20 dosages




over 150 grams not over 200 grams

over 32 grams not over 40 grams

Over 8 grams not over 10 grams

over 110 pills not over 140 pills

over 20 dosages not over 24 dosages




over 200 grams not over 250 grams

over 40 grams not over 46 grams

Over 10 grams not over 12 grams

over 140 pills not over 160 pills

over 24 dosages not over 28 dosages




over 250 grams not over 300 grams

over 46 grams not over 56 grams

Over 12 grams not over 14 grams

over 160 pills not over 180 pills

over 28 dosages not over 32 dosages




For amounts in excess of the above stated sums:



over 300 grams: $4 for each addi-tional gram

over 56 grams: $20 for each additional gram

over 14 grams: $70 for each additional gram

over 180 pills: $8 for each addi-tional pill

over 32 dosages: $40 for each addi-tional dosage

over 1 gram: $400 for each gram















The CCRA will also arrest the importer, under the authority of the Customs Act, for smuggling goods into Canada, that are prohibited, restricted or controlled by the Act or by any other Act of Parliament (for example, the CDSA). Once the CCRA has seized the drugs and made an arrest, the responsible police force is contacted and will decide whether or not to proceed and lay charges. As will be discussed later, in some cases, the CCRA has entered into Criminal Charge Agreements with police forces. The Crown Attorney will then decide whether or not to prosecute, based on case-by-case specifics.

Under section 6 of the CDSA importing drugs, except as authorized under the regulations, is an offence regardless of quantity. Therefore, in the case of importing, there is no "threshold" in the CDSA below which a lesser sentence or fine can be imposed. However, if the amount imported is of a quantity normal for personal use, rather than resale, the Crown may choose to prosecute for possession rather than importing.

The CCRA in Windsor has a Criminal Charge Agreement with the Windsor RCMP which sets out guidelines for criminal prosecution for border seizures. The amounts are to be used only as a guide, but generally a person will not be charged by the RCMP for importation of less than 50 grams of marijuana, less than 20 grams of hashish or less than 15 grams of hash oil. In these cases, enforcement will be done under the Customs Act.  From 1996 to 2001, almost 99% of the 4,055 marijuana seizures in the Southern Ontario region were for less than 50 grams.  


The following table provides information on seizures made by the RCMP, CCRA, Sûreté du Québec, Ontario Provincial Police and the municipal police forces of Montreal, Laval and Toronto.  


Drugs Seized in Canada: 1993–2001









































marihuana (kg)






























liquid hashish










(Weights in kilograms; Ecstasy in dosage units)


According to Professor Steve Pudney, Public Sector Economics Research Centre, Department of Economics, Leicester University, “seizure data provide the most direct information on availability of drugs even though drugs seized are not contributing to the available supply.”[12][78] If one looks at RCMP drug seizure trends, however, it becomes obvious that the data must be used cautiously, because the number of interceptions or the amount seized in one year is not necessarily a true indicator of an increase or decrease in the drug situation. Rather, it is an indication of the impact of active and passive policing.  


Seizures are likely to be passive in the sense that there is a more or less constant seizure rate achieved by routine monitoring and investigation. The greater the amount of drugs entering the market, the greater the background level of seizures, on a purely statistical basis. Passive seizures are thus a positive indicator of the size of the market. However, drug policing also has active aspects. Investigations based on criminal intelligence often lead to the closing down of pipelines of supply and the removal of significant quantities of the product from the domestic market. Seizures of this type are negatively related to market size in the sense that a large seizure, rather than being an indicator of supply growth, is a cause of supply contraction. When these two aspects are present, it is difficult to draw any clear conclusion about supply from information on seizures. [13][79]


While passive seizures may indeed be a positive indicator of the size of the drug market, one must remember that passive seizures may also be somewhat inaccurate, because Canada’s vast borders and coastline make it difficult for Canadian officials to make consistent interceptions and seizures each year. Importers continually find new ways of avoiding authorities by means of different ports of entry, as well as larger, infrequent shipments or vice versa.

Despite these problems with seizure data, the trends indicate that the seizures of cannabis, both in kilos and plants, have seen a fairly significant increase in the last few years, particularly when compared to seizures relating to cocaine and heroin.    

What is clear from the seizure data is that police have, in recent years, placed increased emphasis on marijuana cultivation offences. In 1993, police seized fewer than 250,000 marijuana plants, while seizures in 2001 totalled more than 1,350,000 plants. This would seem to suggest an increase in cultivation in Canada and also a shift in police priorities to cultivation offences.  


[1][67] The Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics warns that crime statistics may be influenced by many factors, including: reporting by the public to the police; reporting by the police to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics; the impact of new initiatives such as changes in legislation, police or enforcement practices; and social, economic and demographic changes.  

[2][68] Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Juristat, Crime Statistics in Canada - 2001, Catalogue no. 85-002-XIE Vol. 22, no. 6, page 11.

[3][69] Ibid.

[4][70] Plecas, D., et. alii., (2002) Marihuana Growing Operations in British Columbia – An Empirical Survey (1997-2000), Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice – University College of the Fraser Valley and International Centre for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Justice Policy.

[5][71] It should be noted that in 1997 the rate in both Yukon and Northwest Territories was even higher than in British Columbia.

[6][72] Also, the data prior to 1995 are based on approximations made from the average distribution of charges during the period covering the years 1995 to 2000.  

[7][73] Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Juristat, Illicit Drugs and Crime in Canada, Catalogue no. 85-002-XIE, Vol. 19, No. 1, page 5. In this case, “other drugs” means: 1) illegal drugs other than cannabis, cocaine or heroin, and 2) controlled drugs.

[8][74] Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Juristat, Crime Statistics in Canada - 2001, Catalogue no. 85-002-XIE, Vol. 22, No. 6, page 19.

[9][75] Ibid.

[10][76] Carrier, N. (2000) Discours de patrouilleurs montréalais sur la détection de l’infraction de possession de drogues prohibées.  Mémoire de maîtrise. École de criminologie, Université de Montréal.

[11][77] Voir aussi la discussion qu’en fait M. Guy Ati-Dion lors de son témoignage devant le Comité spécial du Sénat sur les drogues illicites, Sénat du Canada, première session de la trente-septième législature, 29 octobre 2001, fascicule 8, pages 73-74.

[12][78] Appendix B. ‘Referee’s Comments.’ In Bramley-Harker (2001) Sizing the UK market for illicit drugs. London: Home Office. RDS Occasional Paper no 74.

[13][79] Ibid.

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