The issue of illicit drug policy is once again on the official agenda of the Canadian government. Thirty years after the LeDain Commission’s thorough, evidence-based inquiry into the non-medical uses of drugs, it appears as though the government is preparing to address some of the long-standing concerns in this highly politicized issue area. From cannabis to corrections, major changes are being considered for Canadian drug laws and policies. Signs of change are numerous and include:

  • Health Canada implemented a program allowing for the cultivation, possession and use of marijuana for medical purposes (July 2001).
  • Correctional Service Canada released a report stating that it was considering removing THC from the list of substances it screens in the urinalysis of prisoners on conditional release in the community (January 2002).
  • The Senate Special Committee released its Report on Cannabis which recommended the legalization of marijuana and amnesty for all those who have been convicted of possession (September 2002).
  • The House Special Committee on the Non-Medical Use of Drugs issued a report which called for the decriminalization of cannabis (November 2002).
  • Health Canada made a decision to allow cities to apply for permits to pilot test supervised injection facilities for intravenous drug users (December 2002).
  • Two recent Ontario court rulings found that Canadian cannabis laws are too incoherent to allow convictions for possession of cannabis (January 2003).

These and many other examples suggest that we are in the midst of a “window” of policy change in regard to illicit drugs in Canada. Indeed, the current Liberal Government has announced its intention to introduce a bill to decriminalize cannabis in mid-2003. Although the outcomes of these changes are still to be determined, most observers agree that change is inevitable, and that meaningful reforms are on the horizon.

It is within this exciting policy environment that the John Howard Society of Canada supervised the six research projects published in this volume under the Policy Analysis Enhancement Project (PAEP). Funding for the project originated from the Voluntary Sector Initiative of the Privy Council with the intent of assisting organizations in the voluntary sector to develop expertise in policy analysis. The PAEP is a two-year project that takes select members of voluntary sector organizations and guides them through the creation of policy-relevant research related to Canadian drug policy. This volume presents the research undertaken by the first-year participants of PAEP project.

The articles in this collection look at drug control policy in Canada from a number of different vantage points. They range from an analysis of the differences between contemporary drug control policy in Canadian and the U.S., to considering how the assumption that drugs cause crime has influenced drug control and corrections policy in Canada, to a cost/benefit analysis of expanding methadone maintenance programs in Canadian federal prisons to all who are medically determined to benefit from the therapy.

In her article entitled “Canada’s Drug Laws: Prohibition is Not the Answer,” Giselle Dias, from the Prisoner’s HIV/AIDS Support Network (PASAN), takes a critical look at policies related to drug prohibition. After discussing the origins and development of Canadian drug control laws, her research uses Goldstein’s (1985) tripartite theory relating violence and drugs to argue that the majority of harms associated with illegal drugs are derived not from the use of illicit substances, but from the laws that make them illegal. Her analysis ends with a called for Canada to follow the lead of several European countries and implement pragmatic policies designed to reduce overall harms resulting from illicit drugs in Canada.