Drug Use and Offending

Q1. How has drug legislation changed recently?

Since May 1997, the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act governs all drug offences in Canada.

Prior to 1997, the two most important federal statutes dealing with illicit drugs were the Narcotics Control Act (NCA) and the Food and Drugs Act (FDA). The Narcotics Control Act governed over 120 different types of drugs such as cocaine, heroin, opium, and cannabis. The NCA did not distinguish one drug from another. For example, cannabis and cocaine offenders were subject to the same criminal procedures and penalties. The Food and Drugs Act governed the regulation of pharmaceutical drugs, food, cosmetics, and medical devices. Two parts most specifically dealt with the non-medical use of specific drugs: Part III governed "controlled drugs" (such as amphetamines, barbiturates, testosterone) while Part IV governed "restricted drugs" (such as LSD, and other hallucinogenic drugs). The maximum penalties were less strict under the FDA than the NCA.

The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA)

In May 1997, the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) was adopted in Parliament to replace both the NCA and the FDA. This new legislation does the following:

  1. Consolidates the illicit drug legislation into one comprehensive act;
  2. Creates a new offence - Production of a controlled substance;
  3. Expands the scope of the offences - offences include not only the substances listed in the act but also those substances having similar chemical structure as a controlled substance;
  4. Decreases some of the previous maximum sentences but increases others - for example, the maximum penalty for trafficking cannabis and possession of cannabis for the purpose of trafficking was reduced from life imprisonment to imprisonment of five years minus one day, but only if 3kg or less was involved;
  5. Incorporates some changes triggered by decisions under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms - for example, the minimum sentence under the NCA for importing and exporting narcotics was seven years. The Supreme Court ruled that such a high minimum sentence of imprisonment violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Major Offence Types

The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act consists of six common drug offences as well as two drug-related offences:

  1. Possession
  2. Trafficking
  3. Possession for the purpose of trafficking
  4. Production
  5. Importation and Exportation
  6. Prescription Shopping (also known as "double doctoring" which consists of obtaining a prescription from a practitioner without disclosing that a prescription for that same controlled drug had been obtained within the previous 30 days)

Federal Drug Offence Penalties

The maximum penalties under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act for most of the offences are severe. For instance, for offences such as trafficking, possession for the purpose of trafficking, production, importation and exportation, the maximum penalty is life imprisonment, when it involves any Schedule I[1]drug. The maximum penalties for cannabis offences, if lesser quantities are involved are significantly lower than for cocaine or heroin. However, importation and exportation of cannabis remains a serious offence and the maximum penalty remains life imprisonment. Depending on the drug types (Schedules I to IV), the penalties differ considerably as penalties for Schedule III and IV drugs are lower than for Schedule I and II drugs.


Criminal Code of Canada, Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.