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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 - National Legislative Context

Senate report of 1955

On February 24, 1955, the Senate passed a motion creating a Special Committee of the Senate on the Traffic in Narcotic Drugs in Canada following the motion made a few weeks earlier by Senator Thomas Reid. At that time, Senator Reid had asked the Senate government leader, W. Ross MacDonald, whether the federal government intended to create such a committee since, based on his information, the traffic in opium and other narcotics in the City of Vancouver was beyond the control of police authorities. In debate on the motion, Senator MacDonald accurately summed up the task before the members of the Senate Special Committee as follows:


The work of the committee will largely be to consider the causes of this unfortunate problem with which this country is faced, to hear expert witnesses and to determine in what way the Government can make its most valuable contribution in resolving this unfortunate condition. The reports of this committee, based upon an objective, cautious and factual assessment of the problem, may well become a document of the utmost importance and have far-reaching consequences in helping to found policy upon which the successful solution of this problem can rest. [1][62]


Upon adoption of the motion, Senator Reid was appointed chairman of the Committee. From March 25 to June 17, 1955, the committee organized public hearings in Ottawa and was the first to travel outside the capital, holding meetings in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. In addition to specialists, public servants and police officers, the senators also met a group of 150 people suffering from a drug dependency at Oakalla Prison in Vancouver to gain a better understanding of the reasons leading them to use drugs. The Committee heard 52 witnesses: 13 from law enforcement agencies, 10 from the various federal departments concerned by the fight against drug trafficking and 12 addiction treatment specialists. On June 23, 1955, Senator Reid tabled the Committee's report containing a series of recommendations for the treatment of people suffering from a drug dependency and the fight against the traffic in narcotic drugs.

According to the report, the figures provided by the Department of Health revealed that there were 515 “medical addicts” in Canada, that is to say individuals who had become dependent on a drug as a result of treatment for a disease, 333 “professional addicts” (doctors, pharmacists and so on) and 2,364 “criminal addicts”, for a total of 3,212. Of the persons belonging to the last category, 1,101 were located in Vancouver.[2][63] Only 26 of the 2,364 “criminal addicts” were under 20 years of age.

To establish a relationship between crime and drug dependency and to explain the difficulties in establishing treatment programs, the Committee cited a study conducted by the RCMP noting that, of 2,009 “criminal addicts”, 341 had first been convicted of an offence under the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act, 1,220 had first been convicted for other crimes and 478 had already had a criminal record. Thus, 1,668 of the total 2,009 “drug addicts” were criminals, which was sufficient in the Committee's view to confirm the thesis of the “criminal” or “contaminating” user.[3][64] It was therefore clear that drug addiction was not a disease. In the Committee's view, most “addicts” came from disadvantaged backgrounds in which crime and family problems were omnipresent.


The evidence of medical authorities was to the effect that drug addiction is not a disease in itself. It is a symptom or manifestation of character weaknesses or personality defects in the individual. The addict is usually an emotionally insecure and unstable person who derives support from narcotic drugs. The Committee was gravely concerned to learn that relatively few cases could be authenticated where drug addicts, while out of custody, had been successful in abstaining from the use of drugs for any lengthy period of time. The complications and difficulties in the successful treatment of drug addiction, having regard to the pattern of development of the addict and his almost invariable criminal tendencies, cannot be too heavily stressed. [4][65]


In the circumstances, the Committee unanimously rejected the idea of creating government clinics which, on certain conditions, would provide “criminal addicts” with ambulatory treatment. The Committee moreover emphasized that a resolution adopted at the time at the tenth annual session of the United Nations Narcotic Drug Commission, stated that this form of treatment was not advisable.[5][66] It also rejected the United Kingdom's model after confirming, with the aid of British specialists, that doctors should not encourage drug addicts to persist in their addiction if they could not, even after lengthy treatment involving gradual reduction of the prescribed doses abstain from drugs. On this point, the report states: “[…] dangerous (narcotic) drugs in the United Kingdom are subject to a wide degree of control of the exacting standards demanded by the international agreements to which the United Kingdom, in common with Canada, is a party.[6][67]

Considering that “addicts” were “basically criminals who daily violate the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act”, the Committee argued that municipal and police authorities, more particularly those of Vancouver, should more effectively invoke the provisions of the Criminal Code dealing with theft, vagrancy and prostitution. Citing the testimony of Harry J. Anslinger before a U.S. Congress committee, the Committee stated that such an initiative would solve much of the problem caused by drug addiction. Second, it noted that “the evidence of many witnesses recommended the compulsory segregation and isolation of all addicts for long periods of time for the purpose of treatment and possible rehabilitation.”[7][68]

Thus, to prevent this “scourge” from spreading in the penitentiaries and to cure “criminal addicts” convicted of crimes, the Committee suggested that “the penitentiary authorities might give further consideration to the particular problems presented by criminal addicts in terms of segregation, treatment including specialized training and rehabilitation and other measures necessary in view of the special problems which addiction superimposes.[8][69] In fact, as Minister of Health, Paul Martin had done a year earlier, the Committee instead emphasized the limits of federal jurisdiction and the efforts the provinces should devote to the treatment of “drug addicts” who had not been convicted of a crime. Still advocating the segregation of these individuals, the Committee indicated that the federal government wanted to make available to British Columbia the federal William Head quarantine station on Vancouver Island so that it could transform it into a treatment centre similar to that in Lexington, Kentucky. It further proposed the creation of a national health program to provide financial support for provincial drug addiction initiatives.

The Committee also encouraged the creation of groups similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, but rejected the idea of national education campaigns for the general public and teenagers on the ground that “such programs should not be used where they would arouse undue curiosity on the part of impressionable persons or those of tender years”.[9][70] The Committee supported the position of the UN Narcotic Drug Commission, recommending instead that a “mental health” program be established to detect behaviour in the schools that might lead to drug addiction.

Since treatment programs could not cure all “drug addicts”, the Committee also proposed that certain measures be adopted to fight illegal trafficking in narcotics. It thus recommended:

··               that a separate offence be created for the illegal importing/exporting of narcotic drugs in order to put an end to drug smuggling;

··               that a maximum prison term be imposed of up to 25 years (life) for that new offence;

··               that the maximum prison term be increased from 14 to 25 years for trafficking offences; and

··               that it be possible to establish proof of a conspiracy in order to facilitate the conviction of the leaders of criminal organizations not directly involved in the sale of narcotics but which benefit therefrom.


In the Committee’s view, the severity of these penalties would “act as an effective deterrent to an individual in smuggling drugs into Canada for the profit of a ‘higher up.’”[10][71] Rather than waste police and court resources in trying to convict organized crime leaders who were the cause of the problem, an attempt had to be made to eliminate the “trafficker-distributors” in the neighbourhoods of the large cities and the problem would be solved.

Although the Committee's proposals were much more conservative than those advanced in the debates preceding its establishment, contrary to a number of other reports by parliamentary committees or royal commissions of inquiry, most of its recommendations would be followed by federal authorities. First, it contributed to a number of research projects in British Columbia and Ontario in 1956. And second, the Senate Committee’s report was at the origin of most of the new provisions of the Narcotic Control Act, which was passed in 1961 to replace the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act.



[1][62] Hansard, Senate, February 24, 1955, page 239.

[2][63] Hansard, Senate, June 23, 1955, page 739.

[3][64] Hansard, Senate, June 23, 1955, p. 739.

[4][65] Hansard, Senate, June 23, 1955, p. 742.

[5][66] Hansard, Senate, June 23, 1955, p. 740.

[6][67] Hansard, Senate, June 23, 1955, p. 740.

[7][68] Hansard, Senate, June 23, 1955, p. 744.

[8][69] Hansard, Senate, June 23, 1955, p. 745.

[9][70] Hansard, Senate, June 23, 1955, page 741.

[10][71] Hansard, Senate, June 23, 1955, page 746.

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