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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 11

A National Drug Strategy?

There is no arguing that both licit and illicit psychoactive substances affect Canadians in many ways, both positively and negatively, both directly and indirectly. In addition, no one would dispute the fact that psychoactive substance use (again, both licit and illicit) is a widespread phenomenon, not only on the part of adults but also among the youths of this country. Because of the potential problems for those who abuse psychoactive substances, dealing with this issue should be a matter of serious concern for any government, and for society as a whole.

Based on the importance of the subject, it would probably surprise many Canadians to learn that only from 1987 to 1993 did Canada have a fully funded national drug strategy. It is true that Canada has had legislation dealing with the use of psychoactive substances since the passage of the Opium Act in 1908. This Act was followed by several pieces of criminal legislation over the years that increased federal enforcement powers over psychoactive substances and expanded the list of illicit substances.[1][1] These pieces of legislation have historically focused on the supply of psychoactive substances, adopting a prohibitionist approach to use. It is widely acknowledged, however, that a more balanced approach is required if one is to deal effectively with those who abuse psychoactive substances.

This chapter will recount the development and implementation of the 1987 National Drug Strategy, which had as an objective the promotion of a balanced approach to the problem of psychoactive substance abuse. This will be followed by a discussion of what became of the national strategy and whether its goals have been achieved.


Phase I - development and implementation 

In May 1987, the federal government announced a $210-million, five-year action plan to curb drug abuse. The government stated that the action plan was in response to mounting concerns regarding increasing rates of drug-related problems. Others have suggested that “(t)his strong political action was undoubtedly influenced by the latest American ‘War on Drugs.’”[2][2]  

The National Drug Strategy (NDS), Action on Drug Abuse, was launched by the then Minister of National Health and Welfare, who was the lead Minister in the federal effort to curb drug abuse.[3][3] Several other departments also participated in the first interdepartmental attempt to co-ordinate Canada’s response to its drug abuse problem. It was believed that there was a need for a coordinated, strategic approach to the problem of drug abuse in Canada. The overall objective of the NDS was “to reduce the harm to individuals, family and communities from the abuse of alcohol and other drugs through a balanced approach that is acceptable to Canadians.”[4][4] Other partners included provincial and municipal governments, business, law enforcement agencies, and professional and voluntary organizations.

The federal government recognized that, in the past, the emphasis of its involvement in this area had been largely restricted to supply control measures. Meanwhile, communities, provinces and territories, and many professional and volunteer groups, had focused their efforts on reducing the demand for drugs, through prevention and treatment programs. Given the division of constitutional powers in Canada, this separation of responsibilities is not altogether surprising. It does, however, impose limits on the establishment of a comprehensive national framework.    


The division of powers between Canadian provinces and the federal government has made concerted, comprehensive action against drug and alcohol abuse very difficult to achieve. For example, most program strategies aimed at prevention are generally seen as part of the health or education systems; matters of provincial jurisdiction over which the federal government has little direct control. However, while enforcement activities are controlled at the local level, for the most part, the authority derives from federal powers, and the control largely remains with the federal government. [5][5]


In developing the NDS, the federal government noted that, within the provinces and territories, and at the community level, many innovative programs of drug counselling, therapy and rehabilitation had been initiated. It also recognized that much of the program expertise existed at the provincial level. What was lacking, however, was a strong mechanism for national collaboration. The government believed that the NDS provided such a comprehensive national framework and viewed it as “a co-operative program that combines the efforts and resources of the federal government with those of all provincial and territorial governments and addiction agencies across Canada.”[6][6]

The government identified six core components of the NDS: education and prevention; enforcement and control; treatment; international cooperation; research and information; and national focus. Of the $210 million in new federal funds allocated to enhance existing programs and to fund new initiatives, $20 million was allocated for the first year, $40 million for the second year, and $50 million for the last three years of the strategy. A significant amount (70%) of the resources was committed to education and prevention (32%) and treatment and rehabilitation (38%); 20% was committed to enforcement and control; and the other 10% to information and research (6%), international co-operation (3%) and national focus (1%).[7][7] The government noted that, while enforcement agencies were given more resources to combat supply, most of the money was allocated to address the demand for psychoactive substances, thus providing a better balance between reducing both the demand for drugs and reducing their supply.[8][8] According to information received from Health Canada, the resources were generally spent as planned.

In order to illustrate the comprehensive nature of the NDS, the following sets out the goals and initiatives announced during the week of its launch:


Prevention, treatment, research, control components[9][9]


vv     To create improved public awareness and information:

··               A media campaign, developed in consultation with provinces;

··               Federal endorsement of Drug Awareness Week;

··               Telephone information lines.


vv     To encourage involvement in prevention activities:

··               Support for a range of prevention initiatives developed within local communities;

··               Support for the development of innovative and improved treatment services at the community level;

··               Development and expansion of training and training materials;

··               A National Action Conference on Drug Abuse.


vv     To encourage prevention initiatives targeted to particular groups:

··               Efforts to encourage youth employment activities that improve life-skills development as well as employability;

··               Support for demonstration projects by police to develop new prevention initiatives for youth in school, and for urban youth at risk and Aboriginal communities;

··               A review of all current programming directed at drug abuse among Aboriginal people;

··               New initiatives focussed particularly at Aboriginal youth;

··               Support for northern communities wishing to exchange experiences with other Arctic Rim communities on drug abuse issues.


vv     To encourage more effective treatment services tailored to specific needs:

··               An examination of future federal cost-sharing of new or expanded drug and alcohol treatment and rehabilitation programs;

··               Measures to improve detection of drug abuse by health professionals and to support their rehabilitation;

··               Establishment of an advisory committee on methadone and measures to prevent diversion of methadone;

··               Development of training materials and information for health care professionals and others working in the addictions field;

··               A review of current efforts to address the problem of drugs in the workplace;

··               Continued efforts to eliminate the use of banned drugs in sport within Canada and internationally.


vv     To update and improve Canada’s drug laws and regulations:

··               New legislation to replace the outdated Narcotics Control Act and Food and Drugs Act;

··               Improved co-ordination among federal organizations and with provinces to improve regulatory control of drug use;

··               Increased federal capacity for drug identification, analysis and monitoring;

··               Co-ordinated policies concerning illegal supply of drugs in Canada.


vv     To improve the knowledge base in the drug abuse field:

··               Support research on patterns and trends in the drug abuse field and on prevention and treatment;

··               A study and recommendations on priority data needs.


vv     To ensure a long-term commitment to the drug abuse field where long-term solutions are needed:

··               A Task Force to review different means of ensuring that provincial expertise and experience can be made available for the benefit of the country as a whole and to ensure national ongoing commitment to promoting the study and prevention of drug abuse.


Enforcement components[10][10]


vv     To provide strengthened and co-ordinated drug law enforcement:

··               Strengthening of the RCMP’s drug intelligence capabilities and liaison with other forces;

··               A co-ordinated approach to improved coastal enforcement against drug smuggling;

··               Improved co-ordination of drug law enforcement at the federal level as well as between federal and provincial organizations.


vv     To help take the profit out of illegal drug trafficking:

··               Expansion of the RCMP’s Anti-Drug Profiteering Program and improved public awareness of program activities and objectives;

··               Improved techniques for tracing illicit funds will be developed.


vv     To strengthen Canada’s international efforts:

··               RCMP special training in drug enforcement for police officers of selected drug source or transit countries.


vv     To create improved public awareness and information about drug abuse:

··               An expansion in the RCMP’s capacity across the country to promote drug awareness.


vv     To address the problems of drug abuse in federal correctional institutions:

··               A study will be undertaken on drug use among inmates and on the effectiveness of current treatment programs in correctional institutions;

··               Improved drug control in penitentiaries;

··               Development of programs for inmates with drug abuse problems to help them cope better after their release;

··               Improved prevention through training for staff and development of information programs for inmates.


Interdiction components[11][11]


vv     To strengthen Canada Customs’ capacity to interdict illegal drugs entering Canada:

··               Expansion of Canada Customs resources to strengthen capability in the critical areas of targeting and examination of high-risk cargo shipments and travellers in all modes of transportation, and of high-risk mail;

··               Development and acquisition of X-ray equipment to increase drug detection capabilities during the examination of cargo, baggage and mail;

··               Expansion of the Canada Customs Detector Dog Service to provide service in all Customs regions across Canada, and increase our present capabilities at high-volume points of entry;

··               Enhanced training to Customs Inspectors in the identification of drug couriers and high-risk commercial shipments: this training will increase the awareness of Customs Inspectors relating to the identification of indicators (characteristics) that may be present during the examination of a person or commercial shipment;

··               Expansion of Canada Customs involvement in the Crime Stoppers programs of municipal police forces across Canada;

··               Co-operation with airlines and shipping companies engaged in the international transport of people and goods, with a view to Canada Customs obtaining assistance in the detection of illicit drugs destined for Canada;

··               Co-operation with foreign Customs services in targeting in-transit drug couriers.


vv     To ensure appropriate immigration policies:

··               Review of immigration policy on drug traffickers.


International components[12][12]


vv     To ensure that Canada plays an active role in international forums on drug abuse:

··               Canada’s active participation at the International Conference on Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking to be held in Vienna, 17-26 June 1987;

··               Accession to the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances;

··               Increase in Canada’s contribution to the United Nations Fund for Drug Abuse Control (UNFDAC) to a target level of $1 million by 1991;

··               Inclusion of reduction of drug abuse as a factor in considering requests for assistance under Official Development Assistance;

··               Hosting of an international conference of experts on Recommended Methods for Testing Drugs of Abuse.


vv     To improve public awareness and information:

··               Information for Canadians travelling abroad about the hazards of illicit drug possession in other countries.


Proceeds of crime components[13][13]


vv     To take the profit out of illicit drug trafficking:

··               Proceeds of Crime legislation to reduce the profitability of drug trafficking.


Creation of the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse

The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA) was created by an act of Parliament in 1988. It is a non-governmental organization with the aim to promote “increased awareness on the part of Canadians of matters relating to alcohol and drug abuse and their increased participation in the reduction of harm associated with such abuse, and to promote the use and effectiveness of programs of excellence that are relevant to alcohol and drug abuse.”[14][14] This is to be done by:


vv     Promoting and supporting consultation and co-operation among governments, the business community and labour, professional and voluntary organizations in matters relating to alcohol and drug abuse;

vv     Contributing to the effective exchange of information on alcohol and drug abuse;

vv     Facilitating and contributing to the development and application of knowledge and expertise in the alcohol and drug abuse field;

vv     Promoting and assisting in the development of realistic and effective policies and programs aimed at reducing the harm associated with alcohol and drug abuse; and

vv     Promoting increased awareness among Canadians of the nature and extent of international efforts to reduce alcohol and drug abuse, and supporting Canada's participation in those efforts.[15][15]


Thus, the CCSA was created to provide a national focus and leadership in the area of reducing the harm associated with alcohol and other drug abuse. It works closely with federal and provincial partners, both governmental and non-governmental. As the NDS indicated, the government had recognized that a coordinated response including all partners was required if long-term solutions were to be found. Co-operation and coordination between all partners is a key function of the CCSA.


The CCSA works with the private sector, provincial addiction agencies, and many special interest groups to make it possible for all Canadians to benefit from the best prevention programs. One way of doing this is by keeping people working in the field in touch with what’s happening across the country.[16][16]


The CCSA is primarily responsible for providing “credible, objective information and policies on addiction to the federal government, the not-for-profit and private sectors, and provincial/territorial and municipal governments.”[17][17] It has set out the following seven goals:


vv     Policy Formulation

··               Goal 1: To monitor significant research and policy developments, and to provide informed comment on issues of national significance.


vv     Information Development

··               Goal 2: To maintain and continually improve national information on the nature, extent and consequences of substance abuse, and problem gambling in Canada.


vv     Best Practices Development

··               Goal 3: To monitor significant programs and practices, and contribute to the identification and dissemination of best practices.


vv     Communications

··               Goal 4: To develop a communications strategy that includes a series of focused activities and information products aimed at increasing the awareness of Canadians of addictions issues, and influencing and informing CCSA’s key target audiences.


vv     Network Development

··               Goal 5: To develop, co-ordinate and support networks that facilitate the sharing and application of information and expertise.


vv     Information and Reference Service

··               Goal 6: To maintain an efficient and responsive information and reference service.


vv     Administration/Management

··               Goal 7: To organize the policy, administrative and human resource functions in an effective and financially responsible manner.[18][18]


An important contribution of the CCSA is the establishment of a Clearinghouse on Substance Abuse, which links all major sources of information on alcohol and other drugs in a single computer network.

The CCSA, which is within the portfolio of the Minister of Health, is structured as a corporation, with a chair and a board of directors. It is funded by the NDS and through its own revenue-generating efforts. The CCSA was originally allocated an annual $2 million of core funding but the cuts that occurred as a result of Program Review in 1997 reduced its core funding to $500 000. This necessitated the release of almost all full-time staff. Michel Perron, the CCSA’s chief executive officer, indicated that the budget cuts affected the CCSA’s ability to carry out its mandate.  


Since 1997, the CCSA has basically survived by working for a number of departments on contract. Those contracts ensured our survival, but significantly hindered our efforts to fulfill our legal mandate in a proactive way. [19][19]


In early 2002, the government increased the CCSA’s core funding to $1.5 million. We were told that, with this increase, the CCSA can stabilize its activities and Canada runs a lower risk of losing its only collective memory as well as the only drug addiction specialists working at the federal level.[20][20]

Creation of Canada’s Drug Strategy Secretariat

In 1990, Canada’s Drug Strategy Secretariat was given the mandate to coordinate activities within the federal government and with other governments (both nationally and internationally). The secretariat was given many responsibilities, including ensuring the visibility of the NDS, coordinating the evaluation of the NDS and examining the issue of substance abuse from a strategic standpoint. One of its key responsibilities was to act as a facilitator.


An important function of the Secretariat is to serve as an information source, a central point of entry to the federal government directing those with questions toward people with the answers. Members of the Secretariat also provide advice from outside groups to the federal partners. They attempt to bring groups together to facilitate issues of common concern. [21][21]


The Secretariat was disbanded in 1996 during Phase II of the strategy. In the evaluation of Phase II of the CDS, it was suggested that the function of overseeing the coordination should be given to a body that is not an integral part of one of the partner departments–otherwise, such a body would be in a potential or perceived conflict of interest.[22][22] In the past, some had regarded the Secretariat as representing primarily the interest of Health Canada rather than representing the drug strategy itself.

Today, the Office of Canada’s Drug Strategy is the focal point within the federal government for the drug strategy. It describes itself as follows:


The Office of Canada's Drug Strategy of Health Canada is the focal point within the federal government for harm reduction, prevention, and treatment and rehabilitation initiatives concerning alcohol and other drugs issues. Our efforts aim to prevent the use of drugs by those not currently using them, reduce the harm for those who use them, and promote effective and innovative treatment and rehabilitation for those affected by substance abuse. The Office works collaboratively with other federal departments and provincial and territorial governments, and provides national leadership and co-ordination on substance abuse issues, conducts research into the risk factors and root causes of substance abuse, synthesizes and disseminates leading-edge information and best practices to key partners, and collaborates with multilateral organizations to address the global drug problem. [23][23]


The Auditor General, in her 2001 Report, indicated that there are limits on Health Canada’s authority as coordinator and recommended that the government “review the current mechanisms for leadership and co-ordination within the federal government as well as mechanisms for co-ordination with provincial/territorial and municipal governments in addressing the problem of illicit drugs.”[24][24] We agree with the Auditor General’s assessment and recommend the creation of a position of National Drug Advisor, responsible for ensuring interdepartmental co-ordination at the federal level. In addition, the CCSA would be given a coordinating role with respect to the provinces and territories, cities and with research bodies and universities.



[1][1]  A discussion of Canada’s legislative history in regard to psychoactive substances can be found in Chapter 12.  

[2][2]  Giffen, P.J., Endicott, S. and S. Lambert, (1991) Panic and Indifference: The Politics of Canada’s Drug Laws, Ottawa: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, page 587.

[3][3]  Government of Canada, News Release, Federal Government Launches Co-ordinated Action on Drug Abuse, 25 May 1987.

[4][4]  Government of Canada, Action on Drug Abuse: Making a Difference, 1988, page 5.

[5][5]  Giffen, P.J., op. cit., page 585.

[6][6]  Government of Canada, Action on Drug Abuse: Making a Difference, 1988, page 7.

[7][7]  Ibid.

[8][8]  From 1987 to 1991, an additional $19.5 million was provided for the Driving While Impaired (DWI) Strategy. The DWI strategy included national awareness programs, driver education curricula, national surveys and hundreds of local initiatives aimed at making drinking and driving socially unacceptable to Canadians.

[9][9]  Government of Canada, National Drug Strategy: Prevention, Treatment, Research, Control Components, 25 May, 1987.

[10][10]  Government of Canada, National Drug Strategy: Enforcement Components, 26 May 1987.

[11][11]  Government of Canada, National Drug Strategy: Interdiction Components, 27 May 1987.

[12][12]  Government of Canada, National Drug Strategy: International Components, 28 May 1987.

[13][13]  Government of Canada, National Drug Strategy: Proceeds of Crime Components, 29 May 1987.

[14][14]  Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse Act, R.S., 1985, c. 49 (4th Supp.), s. 3.

[15][15]  Ibid.

[16][16]  Government of Canada, Canada’s Drug Strategy, 1991, page 4.

[17][17]  Report of the Auditor General of Canada to the House of Commons, 2001, Chapter 11, “Illicit Drugs: The Federal Government’s Role”, page 6.

[18][18]  For more information or the CCSA, visit its website at http://www.ccsa.ca and see Government of Canada, Canada’s Drug Strategy - Phase II: A situation paper, Canada, 1994, pages 38-40.

[19][19]  Michel Perron, Executive Director, Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, Proceedings of the Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, Senate of Canada, first session of the thirty-seventh Parliament 2001-2002, 10 June 2002, Issue no. 22, page 69.

[20][20]  Ibid.,

[21][21]  Government of Canada, Canada’s Drug Strategy - Phase II: A situation paper, Canada, 1994, pages 11-12.

[22][22]  Health Canada, Evaluation of Canada’s Drug Strategy: Final Report, June 1997, page 22.

[23][23]  Information regarding the Office of Canada’s Drug Strategy can be found on the Health Canada web site at http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hppb/cds-sca/cds/about.html (revised: 1 December 2000).

[24][24]  Report of the Auditor General of Canada to the House of Commons, 2001, Chapter 11, “Illicit Drugs: The Federal Government’s Role”, page 24.

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