Canada’s Drug Policy


The final decade of the twentieth century was a period that experienced instability in regard to the developments concerning the drug policy front. However, the decade came to an end leaving those who wanted to have reforms that were significant in a mood of disappointment. Taking the case in Canada, as on one hand the 1990s started with a fledging Canadian Drug Strategy that seemed to separate itself from the war on drugs fought by the United States of America, on the other hand just after the middle of the 1990s there was proclamation of the controlled Drugs and the completion of the Substances Act (Erickson 275).

At this point, the research carried out on drugs that was done in the period starting from the year 1969 up to the year 1973 (Le Dain Commission) was disregarded. This brought in a contradiction. Canada as a country has a very powerful public health practice and this country has always been seen to bring down the level of social conflicts by way of facilitating and enabling equal opportunity for people to have access to health care, social services, and still of most importance, equal opportunity to access education.

Among those nations which subjected contemporary criminal drug prohibition to critical examination in terms of both its nature and extend, Canada was among the first ones and this country made keen consideration in carrying out major reforms on the laws it had put in place (Erickson 275).

According to Hathaway and Erickson (468), in spite of the clearly seen similarities between the United States of America and Canada in their stern prohibitionist position originally, there has been a great divergence in the readiness of these countries to put in to consideration the harm reduction approach. Canada opted for the harm reduction model. This paper is going to look at what led to the adoption of harm reduction in Canada as an approach to drug policy.

Canada and the United States of America Dealing With Drug Abuse

According to Grant (655), the American as well as the Canadian societies has experienced the affliction from substance abuse on a continual basis to a high level. This has brought about adverse effects to both the victims as well as to their families and even to the society at large. Taking the case in the United States of America, more than 50 percent of those people in federal prisons are the ones charged with offenses related to drugs. In a similar manner, beginning from the start of the 1970s, the crimes related to drugs in Canada represent more than thirty percent in the increase of the number of people who are imprisoned. Beginning from the 1980s there has been an increase in the imprisonment by 1000 percent. More so, in the United States of America, in the year 2000 the approximate economic cost stood at around 181 US dollars in relation to drug abuse. On the other hand, in Canada, this cost was estimated to be about 40 billion dollars per year.

However, the approaches used by these two countries to deal with drug abuse are not similar. The approaches are quite different from one another. For the case of the United States of America; this country employs the criminalization model of regulation. This is on the basis that addiction is regarded as a crime and this model is employed to carry out the prohibition of those drugs that are regarded as not being legal.

On the other hand, in Canada, this country bases on the model of harm reduction as a drug policy. This model is employed to bring down the levels of the serious health effects, as well as economic and social effects that are brought in by abusing the drugs. This model does not require the abstinence from the consumption of the drug use (Erickson [c] 240).

History of the Drug Problem in Canada

This history can be traced back in the year 1908 at the time the federal government initially banned the production and trading of smoking opium. There was criminalization of a psychoactive drug, encountering an intense change in drug control policy. This was something that had never happened before in the history of Canada. Soon thereafter, there was as well the prohibition of cocaine (Erickson [b] 157). More so, there was swiftly inclusion of cannabis (marijuana) in the schedule in the year 1923 after the House of Commons approving without engaging in any debate. Therefore, this led to the prohibition of three drugs at that time which included opium, cocaine, and cannabis.

According to Hathaway and Erickson (468), those people who used cocaine and heroin were believed to be in a position to turn out to be mad and dangerous and could easily engage in criminal activities. More so, those people who were addicted from the use of marijuana were believed to easily get involved in any form of violence and could easily harm other people. In general terms, in those days, people of Canada were not very much familiar with marijuana and therefore such beliefs that were instilled in the people of Canada did not face any opposition.

Therefore, these drugs which included marijuana, cocaine, and opium were then regarded as a social problem and any person who could use them was to face harsh punishment. This went on for more than five decades without anybody bringing in any opposition up to the time a rapid increase of recreational drug consumption among the youths called for government attention to set up a commission and this also occurred in many other nations.

At the beginning of the 1970s, at the time when there had been public hearings for three years and after comprehensive research being carried out on the issue, recommendations made by the government inquiry in to non-medical use of drugs indicated that there was need for removal of criminal punishment that brought in banning of one being in possession of cannabis. There was instant rejection of the proposal made by the Le Dain Commission by the Canadian government. Even in the presence of many calls that are underway for carrying out legislative reforms by the experts in the modern days, there has always been the overlooking and rejection of the recommendation to flex the penalties associated with being in possession of marijuana in several nations.

Harm Reduction

The harm reduction movement originated from to the coming up of AIDS in the course of the 1990s. This movement developed in the field of drug abuse. There were great fears among people that those people who abused drugs posed a great danger of bringing in infection of this disease to other people who were healthy and not users of the drugs (Inciardi and Harrison ix).

Harm reduction considers drug use as a fact that can not be avoided and does not take it as a moral issue. Harm reduction further involves bringing down the level of costs, both social and individual, instead of doing away with the use of drugs. In essence, harm reduction deals with specific issues in terms of behaviors in actual conditions of cost-benefit analysis and not in terms of beliefs.

The specific goal for Canada coming up with a national drug strategy in the year 1987 was to bring down the level of harm to people, their families as well as to the society in general that stems from people abusing drugs. The Canada Drug Strategy came up with a determined direction for the drug policy of Canada and this served to provide an indication of departing from the United States of American war on drugs.

Canada Dealing With Harm Reduction (Example of Methadone)

There was broad establishment of methadone treatment in the course of the second half of the 1960s. This was regarded as the most effective way of treating opiate addiction in Canada. In the early 1970s, there was an increase in the number of those programs that were concerned with methadone treatment that were approved. The number increased up to about 23. This increase in the number of programs in Canada matched with the increase in the United States of America in the course of the 1960s and during the initial years of the 1970s.

There was appreciation of the concerns about methadone having the potential to bring in addiction, and more particular to those people who had not acquired complete dependence on opiates. However, there were strong arguments presented by the Le Dain Commission from rapid increase of methadone treatment to be there in Canada and these arguments originated from the prospect of deviating prescribed methadone to illegal markets and the treatment of methadone potential effect that did not encourage actual treatment attempts that were oriented towards self-restraint. This commission did not see any other alternative other than having continual availing of methadone maintenance to highest number of those people addicted from opiate use possible. The commission went ahead and recommended that the methadone programs were supposed to be established in all the regions within the country.

There was the revision of the guidelines that had been put in place in regard to the methadone treatment in the year 1992. This revision did not involve departing from the restrictive regulations that had been set up twenty years earlier on. These altered guidelines gave stipulation of 100mg of methadone as a dose for each day and there was need for federal exemptions if amounts larger than this were required (Fischer 200).

The use of the methadone treatment has been following an oscillating pattern in which its acceptance has been followed by another era of resistance of its use. In the current times, there is drastic use of this treatment in Canada (Fischer 206).

Fischer (206) recommends that the further destiny of this treatment is a basic challenge to policy makers in the public health sector to get a policy balance that gives allowance to the intense accessibility and efficiency to the people who may derive benefit from it as well as making sure there is highest level of quality and safety of treatment.


As it has been looked at, Canada has adopted the harm reduction approach to deal with the issue of drugs. This is not the case in the US where as they rely on the prohibition approach. The specific goal for Canada coming up with the approach of harm reduction bring down the level of harm to people, their families as well as to the society in general that stems from people abusing drugs. The Canada Drug Strategy came up with a determined direction for the drug policy of Canada and this served to provide an indication of departing from the United States of American war on drugs.

Several issues have been raised by different people in several countries in regard to the issue of harm reduction. Among these people, there are those who have a belief that by taking people to jail, this is as well a way of reducing harm. However, there is need for careful clarification of the nature of harm reduction in order to avoid any confusion. There should be ensuring that harms reduced are those that are relevant and not harms that are deemed to be morally or politically correct. Harm reduction should concern itself in maintaining or raising the quality of human life.

Following the fact that the United States of America has been employing its approach of war on drugs, the level of crimes related to drugs is higher as compared to the level of such crimes in Canada. Therefore, this is an indication that if this policy adopted by Canada in regard to drugs can be keenly considered and the possible weaknesses be improved upon, it can be a helpful policy and can be even be adopted by other countries in dealing with drugs.


Erickson, Patricia (a). “A persistent paradox: Drug law and policy in Canada.” Canadian Journal of Criminology; 41, 2; Canadian Periodicals pg 275, 1999.

Erickson, Patricia (b). “The Harm Minimization Option for Cannabis: History and Prospects in Canadian Drug Policy.” In Harm Reduction: National and International Perspectives, edited by James Inciardi and Lana Harrison. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2000. Print.

Erickson, Patricia (c). Recent trends in Canadian drug policy: The decline and resurgence of prohibition. Daedalus; Summer 1992; 121; 31 Research Library. Pg 239. 1992.

Fischer, Benedikt. “Prescriptions, power, and politics: The turbulent history of methadone maintenance in Canada.” Journal of public health policy, Vol. 21, No. 2, pp. 187 – 210. 2000.

Grant, Judith. “Profile of substance abuse, gender, crime, and drug policy in the United States and Canada.” Journal of Offender Rehabilitation. 48(8), 654-668, 2009

Hathaway, and Erickson Patricia. “Drug reform principles and policy debates: harm reduction prospects for cannabis in Canada.” Journal of Drug Issues; 33: 467–496, 2003

Inciardi, James, and Harrison Lana. Introduction: Concept of Harm reduction. California: Sage Publications, 2000. Print.