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Canada: Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs

The Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs released its report on cannabis on Wednesday, September 4, 2002, at 11a.m..  The report is on the Committee web site.  The committee's news conference can be found here.  To see and hear various Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio and television reports, including interviews with advocates, click here.


The Committee's original mandate expired when the federal election was called in the fall of 2001.  A new committee was formed after the election. Here is the current committee web site (includes the September 4, 2002, report of the committee, its terms of reference, testimony, papers presented by witnesses schedule of hearings) and web site of Senator Nolin, Chair of the Committee.

Previous committee web site (This link takes you to the committee that originally began hearings in 2000.  Its mandate ended when Parliament was dissolved for the November 2000 federal election.  The papers and evidence presented to this committee have been received as evidence before the newly constituted committee).

Enactment of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act

During the third reading debate on Bill C-7 in the House on October 30, 1995, the government announced two further initiatives dealing with drug policy. The first was the creation of a task force to examine the way that drugs are "scheduled" under Bill C-7 (now the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act). (Under the Act, drugs are listed in one or more of several schedules set out at the end of the Act. For example, cannabis was listed in Schedules II, VII and VIII. What schedule a given drug appears in determined whether penalties would apply for certain activities (for example, possession) and the severity of those penalties.) The Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy was one of the groups that was to be invited to sit on the task force. The need for a reexamination of the "scheduling" of drugs remains, since the schedules in the new Act are seriously deficient. In fact, no such invitation was ever extended to the Foundation.

Bill C-7 (later renamed Bill C-8) then went to the Senate for review. Several members of the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, the committee reviewing the Bill, publicly stated their support for decriminalizing marijuana. However, the reluctance of the Senate Committee to carry through with this measure baffled many observers. A Montreal Gazette article (June 14, 1996, p. A9) quoted Committee Chair Senator Sharon Carstairs as saying the Senators on the Committee dropped the idea of recommending that there be no criminal charge for having a few "joints" of marijuana because they felt it would never pass the House of Commons (the Bill would have to be returned to the House for a vote on that issue). Senator Carstairs is also quoted as saying that her committee members were also concerned that decriminalizing marijuana possession would violate several international treaties that Canada has signed (several authorities would strongly disagree with the Senator on this point). The Gazette article states further:

But Carstairs said the panel members were indeed serious about decriminalization but foresaw that a recommendation would be futile at this point. "The majority of the Senators -- and I was with them -- felt all the evidence indicated decriminalization for simple possession is the way we should be going," she said in an interview.

Call for joint Senate-House of Commons Committee (1996)

The Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs attached an important recommendation to its jJune 1996 report on Bill C-8 -- that a joint Senate - House of Commons committee be established to conduct an extensive review of Canadian drug laws and policies. The text of the recommendation follows:

THE Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs strongly urges that a Joint Senate and House of Commons Committee be struck to review all of Canada's existing drug laws, and policies and programs.
Without restricting its mandate, this Joint Committee should be authorized to:
reassess Government's approach to dealing with illicit drug use in Canada, its effectiveness in curtailing drug use, and its fairness of application;
develop a national harm-reduction policy to minimize the negative consequences associated with illicit drug use in Canada; and recommend how such a harm-reduction policy would be implemented, including viewing drug use and abuse as primarily a health and social policy issue;
study harm-reduction models adopted by other countries (treatment and alternative programs for illicit drug use); consider whether such programs should be implemented in whole or in part in Canada;
examine Canada's role and international obligations under the United Nations drug conventions to determine whether alternative measures to prosecution and punishment are possible under the conventions;
and if not, consider whether Canada should seek an amendment to the United Nations drug conventions which would allow alternative harm-reduction measures to permit signatory parties to comply;
revisit the LeDain Commission's findings and recommendations and determine what further action is needed; [note to reader from CFDP; the LeDain Commission was Canada's last major study of the non-medical use of drugs; the Commission reported in 1973, but its proposals were never implemented]
explore the health effects of cannabis use; consider whether the decriminalization of cannabis would lead to increased use and abuse, both in the short- and long-term;
explore using the Government's regulatory power under the Contraventions Act as an additional tool to implement a harm-reduction policy.
In addition, the Joint Committee should undertake intensive public consultations to determine the needs of different jurisdictions across Canada, including large urban centres where the societal problems associated with the illicit drug trade are more visible. The goal should be to devise a made-in-Canada drug strategy where all levels of government work effectively together to reduce the harm associated with the use of illicit and legal drugs.
To see the full text of the Committee's report on Bill C-8, including the technical amendments it proposed to the Bill, please click here.

To see the transcripts of testimony of groups, including the CFDP, that have appeared before the Senate Committee since it began hearings in December 1995, please click here.

House of Commons Health Committee examination of drug policy (1996-97)

Even before the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs recommended in June 1996 a joint Senate -- House of Commons Committee on drug policy, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health agreed undertake a review of Canada's drug policies. The committee started hearing witnesses in early October 1996. Representatives of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy appeared on October 22. You can see the transcript of our testimony by clicking here. You can see the press release we issued when we appeared before the committee by clicking here.

The main problem with the Health Committee's review of drug policy was the narrowness of its mandate. The committee's terms of reference read as follows:

1. to receive evidence about the harmful impact of misuse and abuse of legal and illegal drugs on the social behaviour and physical health of Canadians

2. to identify the relevance of variables such as age, sex, ethnicity, socio-economic status and geographical area on the demand for and effect of such substances

3. to examine effective measures for reducing the demand for and use of such substances through education, prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation

4. to make appropriate recommendations on future policy actions to reduce the demand for such substances.

The CFDP stated its strong objections to the narrow mandate of the Health Committee. Nonetheless, in early October 1996, the Health Committee began its review of drug policy without involving the Senate. This review gave drug policy reform groups the chance to argue for a re-thinking of Canada's drug laws and policies. However, nothing came of the  work of the Committee, since a federal election was called in April 1997, before the Committee had issued a report.

  Proposal to establish Senate committee to examine drug policy (1999)

On June 14, 1999, Senator Pierre Claude Nolin called for a thorough review of Canada's drug policies and proposed setting up a special Senate committee for this purpose. For the proposed committee's terms of reference, and Senator Nolin's June 14 speech in the Senate on this topic, please click here. To see the extensive  drug policy background paper prepared for Senator Nolin by Dr. Diane Riley, click here. (For the executive summary, click here.) For the statement issued by the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy in support of the call for the committee, click here.

Creation of  Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs (2000 and 2001)

On April 11, 2000, the Senate approved the creation of the committee. This committee was dissolved when the federal election was called in the fall of 2000.  For details, including the final terms of  reference of this original committee, click here.  Here is the original committee's web site.

After the election, the committee was revived, but with a much more limited mandate (politics, politics!).  Here is the web site of the current committee.

In addition, the House of Commons agreed on May 17, 2001 to establish a committee to examine illegal drugs.  For further information, click here.

Updated: 13 Sep 2002 | Accessed: 78199 times