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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 12 - The National Legislative Context

From 1960 to the Le Dain Commission: the search for reasons


The period following World War II witnessed new attitudes toward narcotic drug control that would call into question the approach adopted by Canada since 1908 in fighting the abuse of and trafficking in narcotic drugs. The international human rights movement, the creation of organizations dedicated to the defence of civil liberties, the gradual democratization of access to universities, the appearance and development of new disciplines in the social sciences such as criminology, psychology, sociology, political science and the sociology of law, scientific progress and research into drug addiction were factors in the creation of new pressure groups consisting of more articulate individuals who disputed the use of criminal law as a “miracle” solution in responding to drug problems. However, it was not until the explosive increase in drug use in the 1960s, the hippie protest movement and the work of the Le Dain Commission that these demands materialized.


Narcotic Control Act (1961)

Passage of the Narcotic Control Act (Act of 1961)[1][72] coincided with the coming into force of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, which played an important role in the creation of the modern international narcotic drug control system, an extension and expansion of the international legal infrastructure developed between 1909 and 1953. Work to group together the nine multilateral treaties signed during that period into a single international enactment began in 1948, and Canada played a significant role in the negotiations and drafting that led to its adoption.

While the Act retains most of the criminal procedures and offences established over the previous years, two amendments formed the subject of major parliamentary debate: the creation of an offence for illegal importing or exporting of narcotics and the increase in penalties for the offence of trafficking, and the treatment of drug addicts?. The minimum prison term of six months for simple possession was repealed, as was the procedure that provided that the Identification of Criminals Act would apply in the case of a summary conviction and the provision eliminating the right of appeal for certain offences.

The Act of 1961 was divided into two parts: the first, entitled “Offences and Enforcement”, was placed under the authority of the Minister of Health, and the second, “Preventive Detention and Detention for Treatment”, was to be administered by the Minister of Justice.

As the Senate Committee had recommended, section 5 of the Act of 1961 created the offence of importing and exporting narcotic drugs. Whoever was convicted of that offence (solely by way of indictment) was liable to a minimum prison term of seven years to a maximum of 25 years. That provision was designed to combat drug smuggling between the United States and Canada and to comply with the international undertakings Canada had made in ratifying the Single Convention.[2][73]

In accordance with another recommendation from the Senate Committee report, section 4 of the Act of 1961 raised the maximum prison term for trafficking in narcotic drugs from 14 to 25 years. The provision for whipping was also repealed. These amendments also applied to the penalty provided for possession for the purposes of trafficking.

Part II of the Act, which comprised sections 15 to 19, defined the new federal policy regarding preventive detention and detention for treatment. First, the courts henceforth had the power to order that an individual convicted of trafficking, possession for the purpose of trafficking or importing/exporting drugs, and only if the accused had previously been convicted of similar offences, be placed in preventive detention for an indeterminate period of time. This measure replaced any other sentence which might have been imposed. Second, when a person was charged with simple possession, possession for the purpose of trafficking, trafficking or import/export, the court, at the request of Crown counsel or the accused, could order the accused detained for examination purposes to determine whether he was eligible for a drug addiction treatment program. If that was the case, the accused had to be sentenced to detention for treatment at a specialized federal institution for an indeterminate period of time in lieu of any other sentence provided for under the act. For a first offence, preventive detention could not exceed 10 years. The individual had a right of appeal, was subject to the Parole Act and could be referred to preventive detention at any time if he used drugs during his probation period.

Lastly, the Act of 1961 provided that, if a province adopted a preventive detention policy combined with a drug addiction treatment program (in cases not involving an offence under the act), the federal government could enter into an agreement with the competent authorities of that province to transfer drug addicts to the specialized federal institutions. These new provisions in fact enacted the Senate Committee's proposals.

Despite the intervention of two ministers,  this treatment policy,  based on a penal approach and, to a certain degree, oriented toward repression of the “contaminating user” or “criminal user”, failed to stir up interest among parliamentarians. The measures were passed without opposition but, for reasons that remain unclear, were never proclaimed. The Le Dain Commission moreover questioned this decision by the federal government: “Whether this is because of doubts about the constitutional validity of these provisions or the failure to develop suitable treatment methods and facilities or later reservations by the government as to the advisability of compulsory treatment in principle, or some combination of these, it’s not clear.”[3][74]

Another provision of the Act of 1961, but not the least, was passed by Parliament without debate: the schedule. The Single Convention of 1961 contained a series of schedules prepared by the World Health Organization containing the list of drugs subject to rigorous control for the purpose of preventing them from being used for other than medical or scientific purposes. Most were on the schedule to the Act of 1961, which now comprised more than 92 drugs and their derivatives, spread over 14 major classes (opium, cannabis, coca, phenypipedridine, and so on). No member of Parliament questioned the Minister of Health to determine the criteria or reasons advanced by his department for subjecting such a large number of substances to the restrictive provisions of the act.


An Act respecting Food and Drugs and Barbiturates (1961)

In the early 1960s, the use of drugs not included in the schedule to the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act, or, later, in the Narcotic Control Act, began to concern medical and government authorities. These drugs were barbituric acids or “goof balls”, amphetamines, methamphetamines and the salts and derivatives of those three substances. These so‑called psychotropic drugs could be used to reduce stress, eliminate insomnia, stimulate muscle and brain activity and eliminate appetite.

When physicians and other health professionals began to notice the number of barbiturate dependence cases and the serious secondary effects of those drugs in the 1950s, they asked the government to regulate their distribution and use more effectively. In addition, in 1957, following a Health Department survey of 2,500 pharmacies, more than 300 pharmacists were convicted for failing to comply with regulations respecting the prescription of barbiturates and amphetamines. This time, it should be pointed out, the position of health professionals had more influence on government authorities than the positions of police officers or the Narcotic Control Office. These substances were included in the Food and Drugs Act as “controlled drugs” and not in the Narcotic Control Act, for two reasons. First, certain harsh provisions of the Act of 1961 were coming under increasing criticism. Second, the use of those substances in a number of prescription medications meant that their use was widespread among the general public, particularly among persons holding good jobs, which ultimately was quite different from the unflattering picture hitherto painted of “drug addicts”. In the circumstances, having recourse to the provisions of the Act of 1961 was out of the question.[4][75]

In 1961, Parliament thus passed the Act to Amend the Food and Drugs Act (Food and Drugs Act of 1961)[5][76] to better regulate the trade in barbiturates and amphetamines. The new act created Part III concerning the “controlled drugs” listed in Schedule G. It also created the offence of trafficking or possession for the purpose of trafficking, for which an accused was liable to a maximum prison term of 10 years, if convicted by way of indictment, or 18 months by summary conviction. However, simple possession of the substances was not illegal. Furthermore, unlike the Narcotic Control Act, the definition of trafficking excluded the distribution or giving of a controlled drug, but included the offences of importing and exporting.

In the case of criminal procedures applicable in a trial, a number of aspects were retained from the Act of 1961, such as the procedure concerning the reverse onus in a prosecution for possession for the purpose of trafficking, the use of a certificate from a federal analyst to confirm the nature of the drug, search and seizure writs of assistance, and the forfeiture and restitution of seized substances.

Lastly, Schedule G of the Act included three drugs: amphetamines, barbituric acids and methamphetamines, as well as the salts and derivatives of those drugs. During the debates, one member asked why other similar substances were not included in the schedule. The Minister of Health answered that, based on scientific research, only those three drugs were considered dangerous to human health.[6][77] Furthermore, as had been the case with the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act and the new Narcotic Control Act, the Governor in Council could make regulations upon recommendation by the Minister of Health, and where the public interest warranted it, to amend the schedule.[7][78]


Food and Drugs Act and hallucinogenics (1969)

In 1969, Parliament extended the application of legislative and bureaucratic controls to hallucinogenic drugs by passing the Act to Amend the Food and Drugs Act (Food and Drugs Act of 1969).[8][79] That enactment created Part IV, which was to govern the use of and trade in “restricted drugs” enumerated in the new Schedule J. Those drugs were lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), N-Diethyltryptamine (DET) and Methyl-2,5-dimethoxyamphetamine (STP).

To better control the use of and trade in hallucinogenic drugs, the act provided for the same offences and procedures as those applying to barbiturates. It also created an offence of possession in order to deter anyone from using such drugs. In that instance, an accused was liable, on summary conviction, to a maximum prison term of three years and a fine of $5,000.[9][80] If found guilty of a first offence, on summary conviction, an accused was liable to a prison term of up to six months or a maximum fine of $1,000. For subsequent convictions, the act provided for a maximum prison term of one year or a fine of $2,000.


Narcotic Control Act and the offence of possession of cannabis

In the parliamentary debates on the Food and Drugs Act of 1969, the Minister of Health moved a very important amendment to the Narcotic Control Act. From 1921 until the Narcotic Control Act was passed, Canadian legislation had provided for a hybrid offence in the case of simple possession of a drug. Since 1961, however, that offence was solely an indictable offence punishable by a prison term of up to seven years. The amendment proposed in 1969 maintained the offence, but again offered the option of proceeding by way of summary conviction, thus recreating a hybrid offence. In the case of a first offence in which an accused was found guilty on summary conviction, the Act provided for a maximum prison term of six months or a fine of up to $1,000, and a term of up to one year and a fine of $2,000 for subsequent offences. The amendment was considered necessary by the Minister of Health since the number of prosecutions for cannabis possession had increased from 493 in 1966 to 1,727 in 1969.[10][81] In his view


[…] in spite of the enormous variety of individual situations involved in that number of cases, the relevant section of that act provides very little scope for flexibility, either on the part of the Crown prosecutors or presiding judges or magistrates. There is no provision for the Crown to choose to proceed summarily. […] This rigidity has been the subject of increasing criticism from a wide variety of sources such as the addiction research agencies of several provinces. [11][82]


Lastly, the Food and Drugs Act of 1969 amended the procedure adopted in 1929 providing for the admissibility of a certificate from a federal analyst at trial for an offence involving a scheduled drug under the Narcotic Control Act or a Schedule G or J drug under the Food and Drugs Act. Crown prosecutors would henceforth be permitted to prove orally, under oath, by affidavit or solemn declaration, the status of the signatory of the certificate, who thus no longer had to appear in court. However, a judge could require the analyst to appear before him for examination or cross-examination to better assess the information contained in the affidavit or solemn declaration. The amendment was designed to ensure greater respect for the fundamental rights of the accused.


[1][72] Statutes of Canada, 1961, c. 35.

[2][73] Hansard, House of Commons, June 7, 1961, page 6794.

[3][74] G. Le Dain et al., Cannabis: Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs. Ottawa: Government of Canada, page 221.

[4][75] P.J. Giffen et al., op. cit., pages 471-475.

[5][76] Statutes of Canada, 1961, c. 37.

[6][77] Hansard, House of Commons, May 30, 1961, page 5799.

[7][78] Subsection 37(2) of the Food and Drugs Act, 1961.

[8][79] Statutes of Canada, c. 41.

[9][80] Section 9 of the Food and Drugs Act, 1969.

[10][81] Hansard, House of Commons, March 27, 1969, page 7203.

[11][82] Hansard, House of Commons, March 27, 1969, page 7203.

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