Canada's Senate Committee on the traffic in narcotic drugs


In Canada, as in many other countries, a post-war rise in crime and juvenile deliquency caused a good deal of concern to the public and the governing bodies. One component of the so-called crime wave was an increase in the convictions for offences involving narcotics. Two aspects of the problem were of special significance, that is, the possibility of young people being involved, and the actual relationship of the illicit traffic in narcotics to the crime waves.


Author: Kenneth C. Hossick,
Pages: 1 to 3
Creation Date: 1956/01/01


Canada's Senate Committee on the traffic in narcotic drugs

Kenneth C. Hossick, Director, Division of Narcotic Control, Department of National Health and Welfare, Ottawa, and Canadian Representative, United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs.

In Canada, as in many other countries, a post-war rise in crime and juvenile deliquency caused a good deal of concern to the public and the governing bodies. One component of the so-called crime wave was an increase in the convictions for offences involving narcotics. Two aspects of the problem were of special significance, that is, the possibility of young people being involved, and the actual relationship of the illicit traffic in narcotics to the crime waves.

Public discussions of the problem in the press and elsewhere were characterized by urgent requests for action on the one hand, and by a lack of accurate knowledge of drug addiction and its implications, on the other.

The national government of Canada had been giving serious consideration to the problem for some time, particularly through its technical advisers in the Department of National Health and Welfare and in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In the session immediately preceding appointment of the Senate Committee, the Government had introduced amendments to the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act designed to facilitate enforcement and administration generally, and particularly to increase penalties. These government measures received prompt approval.

However, it was realized that the problem of drug addiction was a complex one from constitutional, legal, administrative and enforcement aspects, and in February 1955 a Special Committee of the Senate of Canada's Parliament was appointed " to enquire into and report upon the traffic in narcotic drugs in Canada and problems related thereto"

The membership of the Committee included representatives of all provinces and some doctors and lawyers with experience with drug addicts. The fact that the Chairman, the Honourable Senator Thomas Reid, was a representative of British Columbia, where the drug problem was considered to be most acute, possibly served as a stimulus to proceedings of the Committee. Senator Reid had previously, as a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons, been Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of National Health and Welfare and so already had some familiarity with departmental administration of the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act.

The Senate Committee was empowered "to send for persons, papers, and records" and the Honourable Paul Martin, Minister of the Department of National Health and Welfare, in his opening remarks to the Committee emphasized that all officers of his Department were at the disposal of the Committee.

In view of the wide interest in this problem it was particularly valuable to have the Senate invite the public to submit briefs, and many organizations took the opportunity to present their views. These included representatives of prisoners aid groups (which in Canada are called Elizabeth Fry and John Howard societies) and spokesmen for the Salvation Army, the United Church of Canada, and other religious and welfare agencies.

This Senate Committee established a precedent in that it also met outside of Ottawa (the national capital); public hearings were held in all the major addiction centres, Canada's larger cities, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. In their endeavour to get as complete and accurate information as possible and to have all points of view represented, the Committee took the unusual step of having drug addicts appear as witnesses, in camera.

Although the Committee did not travel outside of Canada, it did consider legislation and other information respecting drug addiction and narcotic control in the United States, in the United Kingdom, and in France. The Committee considered itself particularly fortunate to have Dr. Harris Isbell, of the United States Public Health Service, come to Ottawa to give members the benefit of United States experience and to answer detailed questions respecting research and treatment procedures. The Senators also were specially interested in the testimony of' Mr. John H. Walker, United Kingdom Delegate to the United Nations Narcotic Commission, who made clear the narcotic control procedures in his country, as well as giving a general picture of the extent of drug addiction there. The members of the Committee also had the benefit of an outline of the French legislation on narcotic drugs, prepared by Mr. Charles Vaille, Representative of France on the United Nations Narcotic Commission

Notwithstanding the comprehensive nature of its investigation, the Senate Committee operated with commendable despatch; it was appointed 24 February 1955, and presented its report four months later on 25 June. The proceedings, which were recorded in full, amounted to 650 pages and made available in Canada extensive information and data about narcotic traffic and drug addiction. This included detailed statements regarding administration and enforcement of the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act as presented by responsible officials in the Division of Narcotic Control of the Department of National Health and Welfare, and of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, respectively.

The way in which international study and agreements provide an authoritative basis for local action is exemplified by the fact that the Senate Committee, for the purposes of its enquiry, decided to adopt the definition of drug addiction approved by the World Health Organization of the United Nations. In doing so, it recognized the basic characteristics of drug addiction as the compulsion to continue taking the drug, the tendency to increase the dose, and the psychological dependence on the drug.

The Committee noted that" Canada has played an important role in international control and is a signatory to all international conventions designed to limit to medical and scientific uses narcotic substances". The Committee also concurred with the statement of the Minister of National Health and Welfare that " the Canadian legislation is as realistic and effective as the legislation of any country ". Incidentally, the prohibition of heroin came into effect in Canada on 1 January 1955, a further evidence of our conformity with international agreements.

It was made clear to the Senate Committee that the illicit traffic, particularly smuggling across the United States-Canada border, was the major factor in the narcotic situation in this country. Some appreciation was gained of the complexity of the attempt to control the illicit distribution in a country with 3,000 miles of land border and ports on two oceans, particularly in view of' the enormous profit associated with the traffic, and the comparative ease with which considerable quantities of drugs can be concealed for transportation and distribution.

The Committee reviewed the relevant narcotic legislation and acquainted itself with details of the administration and enforcement of the Act. The Committee reported itself as "favourably impressed with the efficiency of the administration of the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act by the Division of Narcotic Control of the Department of National Health and Welfare ". The Committee also paid tribute to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for the efficient manner in which they assisted in the enforcement of the Act.

The extent of addiction in Canada amounted to an estimated population of 3,212 addicts of which 2,364 were classified as "criminal addicts". The remainder were considered to be medical addicts (515) and professional addicts (333). Information was provided respecting the characteristics of the addicts with reference to their age, sex, and their criminal and delinquency records. It was suggested that in general the addicts had a delinquency or criminal record before becoming addicts. The Committee was satisfied that there was no teen-age addiction problem in Canada.

The Committee noted that marihuana is rarely found in Canada. The matter of the use of barbiturates was considered and the Committee was of the opinion that the present strict control of the barbiturates under the Food and Drug administration should be continued and that a careful watch should be kept on the use of these drugs.

The Committee noted that co-operation was general among the police forces involved, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the provincial and municipal forces. It was, however, not impressed with local measures of the police in the city of Vancouver where addicts recently have tended to congregate.

A variety of proposals for dealing with the drug problem was presented to the Committee. These covered the range from the suggested compulsory permanent incarceration of, or death penalty for traffickers, to the idea of providing drugs free, or at cost, to addicts. With respect to the much publicized proposal of narcotic clinics, the Committee heard considerable evidence with respect to narcotic clinics and ambulatory treatment. The vast preponderance of responsible evidence on this subject, both oral and written, led the Committee to conclude that the establishment of such clinics or the provision of any other legalized supply of drugs for the purpose merely of supporting addiction would be a retrograde step. In addition, the Committee was strongly of the opinion that the narcotic drug problem could not be solved by the creation of government clinics where addicts could obtain their supplies. The proposal designed to provide legal supplies of drugs to criminal addicts was, therefore, unanimously rejected, and the Committee was supported in this decision by evidence that the Narcotic Drug Commission of the United Nations, at its tenth session, had resolved that" In the treatment of drug addiction, methods of ambulatory treatment (including the so-called clinic method) are not advisable ".

In the face of considerable public discussion and advocacy of the so-called British system, the Committee gave special attention to this view but reported that "from the evidence it appears that there never has been a serious drug problem in the United Kingdom and that the situation there is not comparable with that of Canada ". Mr. Walker advised the Committee that the indiscriminate administration of narcotics to addicts is not now, and never has been, a feature of United Kingdom policy.

The Committee approved the educational programme developed by the Division of Narcotic Control for professional and special groups, such as medical and pharmaceutical associations, schools of nursing, and colleges of medicine and pharmacy. It was not, however, in favour of any general educational efforts which would arouse undue curiosity on the part of impressionable persons or those of tender years, but recommended rather "both the improvement and expansion of mental health programs in our schools" with a view to early detection and treatment of variations from acceptable behaviour.

The high quality of narcotic drug research carried on by the Department of National Health and Welfare was noted and it was suggested that Canada may become an international narcotic drug research centre for students from other countries. The Committee proposed that the Government consider the possibility of bursaries or scholarships for training of medical, probation and rehabilitation personnel. It was recommended also that the organization of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotic Anonymous groups should be encouraged. The Committee urged further the need for communities to make concerted efforts to eradicate conditions that breed drug addiction and expressed the view that church and welfare groups, schools and hospitals, employers and the public generally would need to co-operate to support addicts in their efforts to adjust to life in an ordered society. The Committee was advised of a research project now under way at the University of British Columbia under the direction of Dr. George H. Stevenson.

In presenting its conclusions and recommendations, the Senate Committee pointed out that the solution of the drug addiction problem required elimination of addicts, the suppression of narcotic traffic, and the prevention of an increase of the addict population. The report points out that the solution is further complicated by the division of responsibility between federal and provincial governments. The Committee considered the suppression of the illicit traffic to be a federal responsibility and allocated to the provincial authorities the treatment of drug addiction as an illness. In this connexion it noted the lack of treatment facilities in Canada although there were some legislative provisions in certain provinces for this. The Committee was impressed by the contrast in the addiction situation in the cities of Montreal and Toronto compared to Vancouver. It was pointed out that the drug problem is confined essentially to the three provinces of Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia, particularly the latter. The Committee noted that the Minister of National Health and Welfare had advised the provincial governments that federal assistance was available and that a specific proposal had been made to the province of British Columbia with respect to a treatment centre.

The Committee made special comment regarding the evidence presented by Dr. Harris Isbell who is one of the world's foremost authorities on treatment facilities, and also referred to the evidence of Mr. H. J. Anslinger, Commission of Narcotics of the United States before a Special Committee of the United States Senate, respecting the relationship between heavy penalties and reduction in the drug problem, and wherein he pointed out that in areas where low sentences were imposed, the drug problem substantially increased, and in areas where there was strict enforcement with heavy sentences, the drug problem showed a commensurate decrease.

Finally, the Committee, in emphasizing the necessity for heavy sentences for traffickers, made the point that no distinction should be drawn between the addict-trafficker and the non-addict trafficker. Compulsory lengthy minimum sentences were advocated and the Committee also recommended for consideration amendments to the Juvenile Deliquency Act, to make association of an addict with a juvenile prima facie evidence of contributing to delinquency. In view of the reported difficulty in obtaining convictions for conspiracy, the Committee considered that some appropriate legislative changes should be made to facilitate this enforcement action. It was further proposed that driving privileges be withdrawn for long periods of time for those convicted under the trafficking sections of the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act.

Undoubtedly the recommendations of the Senate Committee and the comprehensive published record of relevant data, authoritative statements, and public opinion will be the basis of future progressive development of measures and programmes relating to narcotic control and drug addiction in Canada.