Greg Smith
John Howard Society of the Lower Mainland


Correctional Services Canada (CSC) has long held the position that it will not tolerate drug or alcohol use in their institutions. They further maintain that: “a safe, drug-free institutional environment is a fundamental condition for the success of the reintegration of inmates into society as law-abiding citizens” (CSC 1996). Given this policy, CSC has implemented a number of programs designed to reduce the amount of alcohol/narcotics trafficked and consumed within its institutions. One of these interventions is the urinalysis-testing program which is now administered both in prisons and in the community. This article will examine the use of urinalysis by CSC as it relates to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana (cannabis). The overall goal of this article is to demonstrate that the potential harms caused by cannabis use are of less a concern than the potential harms created by CSC’s urinalysis monitoring program. The article begins by providing an overview CSC’s urinalysis program. It then examines current drug use trends of federal prisoners emphasizing the limitations of using random urinalysis testing to assess trends in institutional drug use. Next, it comparatively assesses the potential harms associated with CSC’s urinalysis program, including the possibility that some federally sentenced prisoners may be switching from soft drugs like cannabis to ‘hard’ drugs like heroin to escape detection by urinalysis, with potential harms that may be associated with cannabis use. The article ends with some conclusions based on the findings of this analysis.


Correctional Services Canada began urinalysis monitoring in 1985 when Parliament authorized its use in an amendment to Penitentiary Act (CSC 1990). Within a few months, the legality of urinalysis was challenged based on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. There were at least three separate legal challenges, and it took over ten years for the issue to be resolved in the courts. In 1995, the courts ruled that:

Both fulfillment of its mandate, and application of the statutory principles which guide its pursuit of that mandate, justify the Correctional Services of Canada conducting random urine testing…. Moreover, as a deterrent to prison drug use and the violence associated with it, random testing constitutes neither an unreasonable diminution of inmate’s liberty or privacy or the integrity of their persons (CSC 2002).

CSC uses their urinalysis program as “a method to detect and deter drug use by prisoners, to provide a baseline for assessment of current levels of drug use, to identify trends or patterns in drug use behavior, and to identify prisoners in need of treatment”(MacPherson 2001:54). CSC has established objectives and guidelines regarding collection of samples, testing, reporting, consequences and classifications of narcotics for both the community and institutions (CSC 1990), (CSC 2001a, CSC 2001b). From 1992-1997 the rate of urinalysis testing increased from 250 tests per month to approximately 3700 tests per month (CSC 2002). CSC now spends approximately $2.1M a year administering the urinalysis program, with $600,000 devoted to institutional testing, and $1.5M to testing in the community (Malarek 2002).