Gerald B. Thomas
The John Howard Society of Canada


Since 1987, Canada’s drug control policy has ostensibly been guided by the National Drug Strategy (NDS) under the lead role of Health Canada. The NDS explicitly recognizes the need to strike a balance between efforts to control drug supply and efforts to control drug demand. A recent Auditor General report, however, reveals that in 2000, supply reduction received approximately 94% of the federal funds allocated for drug control (Auditor General 2001). The purpose of this research is to explore why, after fifteen years of promoting a more balanced approach to drug control policy in theory, the government is unable to implement a more balanced approach in practice. This article begins with a brief historical overview of Canadian drug policy and then moves to introduce and discuss several possible explanations for why drug policy reform has been so difficult to implement in Canada. The third part comparatively assesses the validity of these various explanations, first by surveying the opinions of drug policy experts, and then by looking at the history of drug politics in Canada. The final section offers suggestions for promoting drug policy reform in light of the findings of this article.


Since the passage of the Opium Act of 1908, Canada has followed a strict prohibitionist approach to the control of illicit drugs (Giffen et al. 1991). Until the late 1950s, a powerful “bureaucratic-enforcement complex” dominated the creation and implementation of Canadian illicit drug policy eventually producing one of the most punitive drug control systems in the world (Fischer 1999:198).1 This system is characterized by strict laws, expanding police powers, and harsh sentences against both drug users and drug suppliers.2 Although Canada’s drug laws were enforced mostly against immigrants at first, they were eventually directed at increasing numbers of Canadian nationals especially after the “cannabis controversy” of the 1960s (Giffen et al. 1991).

Beginning in the mid-1950s, the policymaking monopoly of the enforcement bureaucracy was eroded to some degree first by the emergence of the “treatment” movement, which preferred to view drug abuse as a medical rather than law enforcement/moral problem, and then the “hippy” movement, which led tens of thousands of Canadian citizens to question the efficacy of repressive drug laws, especially in regard to cannabis. Between 1969 and 1973, the Le Dain Commission extensively studied the non-medical use of drugs in Canada eventually producing four lengthy reports. Although the Commission did not reach consensus in regard to its policy recommendations, all members supported movement toward decriminalization, especially in the case of cannabis (Erickson and Smart 1980). Unfortunately, few of the recommendations of the Le Dain Commission ever found their way into Canadian drug policy.

1 In the early 1980’s, Canada had the highest per capita drug arrest rate in the world according to UN statistics (Fischer 1994).
2It is problematic to attribute all enforcement activities to supply-side drug control efforts given that enforcement against drug users can just as easily be interpreted as demand management. Although enforcement against users has decreased from its peak in the early 1980’s, approximately 30,000 Canadians are convicted annually for possessing small amounts of cannabis and 1.5M citizens now have criminal records for simple cannabis possession.