Trends in police-reported drug offences in Canada

By Mia Dauvergne

Drug offences reach 30-year high in 2007
Cannabis offences decline in recent years but remain most common type of drug offence
British Columbia reports highest rate of drug offences among the provinces
Youth accused of drug offences less likely than in the past to be formally charged
Crimes associated with drug offences usually relatively minor
Half of all drug-related court cases are stayed, withdrawn, dismissed or discharged
Summary
Detailed data tables
References
Notes

The association between illicit drugs and crime in general has been well established by criminological researchers in Canada and elsewhere in the world. Research has shown that not only are many crimes committed by those who are under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, but crime, particularly property-related crime, is often committed to obtain money to purchase drugs (Pernanen et al., 2002). Moreover, drug offences have been linked to organized crime operations, street gang activity (CISC, 2008) and prostitution (Duchesne, 1997).

The justice-related costs associated with illicit drug use, including expenses for police, courts and correctional services, have been estimated by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse at about $2 billion annually (Rehm et al., 2006). This figure climbs even higher when other social and health-related costs, such as medical expenses, loss of productivity and work absenteeism, are taken into account.

Efforts to address crime associated with illegal drugs in Canada have led to the creation of the National Anti-Drug Strategy, launched in 2007. This strategy involves a collaborative approach among multiple government departments and community stakeholder groups and includes three action plans: prevention, treatment and law enforcement. As part of the enforcement plan, mandatory minimum sentencing legislation for certain serious drug offences has been introduced.1

Using data from the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Survey, this Juristat article examines the incidence and nature of police-reported drug offences in Canada.2 It explores the long-term trends in possession, trafficking, production, importing and exporting of cannabis, cocaine, heroin and a catch-all category of "other" drugs, including methamphetamine (crystal meth) and ecstasy. It also presents information from the Adult Criminal Court Survey (ACCS) and the Youth Court Survey (YCCS) on the decisions and sentencing outcomes for those charged with drug offences.

The data presented here reflect only those incidents that are substantiated through police investigation. Given that not all crimes come to the attention of police, these data likely represent an under-count of all drug offences that actually occur in Canada. The full extent of drug crime, however, is unknown.

Drug offences reach 30-year high in 2007

The overall rate of police-reported drug offences in Canada has generally been increasing since 1993. In 2007, the rate reached 305 incidents per 100,000 population, the highest point in 30 years (Table 1 and Table 2). This rising drug offence rate coincides with a decreasing overall crime rate which began around the same time (Chart 1).

The opposite trend in drug offence rates and crime rates may be related to police policies, charging practices and available resources. For example, targeted initiatives to "crack-down" on drugs may result in more incidents being identified by police, rather than more incidents actually occurring. Likewise, police may focus law enforcement efforts more on addressing drug-related crimes when time, resources and priorities permit; in other words, when other types of crime decline.

Chart 1
Police-reported crime and drug offence rates, Canada, 1977 to 2007

Description

Chart 1 Police-reported crime and drug offence rates, Canada, 1977 to 2007

1. Excludes traffic offences, drug offences and other federal statute offences.
Source: Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Aggregate Uniform Crime Reporting Survey.

It is also possible that legislative changes may affect the drug offence rate by criminalizing certain behaviours that were not previously considered to be a crime. For instance, in May 1997, the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) was enacted, replacing the former Narcotics Control Act and parts of the Food and Drugs Act. This new Act broadened the scope of substances considered to be illegal and introduced the offence of production of a controlled substance (Quann, 2003).

Similarly, legal debates may also impact the drug offence rate. For example, following almost a decade of steady increases, the rate of drug offences in Canada dropped 7% in 2003, due primarily to changes in possession of cannabis offences. It was around that same time that legislation to decriminalize small amounts of cannabis was introduced in Parliament and the constitutionality of cannabis possession laws was challenged by several court rulings. While this legislation was not ultimately passed, decreases in police-reported incidents that year may have been related to the uncertainty surrounding the legality of this offence, although this cannot be definitively determined.

An increase in the use of illicit drugs may also lead to a greater number of drug-related charges being laid by police. A recent national survey found that between 1994 and 2004, the proportion of Canadians who reported having used an illicit drug in their lifetime rose from 28% to 45%. Cannabis was found to be the most widely used type of drug, followed by hallucinogens, cocaine (or crack), speed and heroin (Adlaf, Begin and Sawka, 2005).

Cannabis offences decline in recent years but remain most common type of drug offence

Over the past 30 years, the rate of police-reported drug crime in Canada has been consistently driven by cannabis offences (Chart 2), most notably possession. Although the rate of cannabis offences has generally been declining since 2002, these types of offences continue to account for the majority of drug crimes. Among the over 100,000 drug-related incidents identified by police in 2007, 62% involved cannabis. Of these, three-quarters were for possession.

Chart 2
Police-reported drug offence rates, by type of drug, Canada, 1977 to 2007

Description

Chart 2 Police-reported drug offence rates, by type of drug, Canada, 1977 to 2007

Source: Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Aggregate Uniform Crime Reporting Survey.

While the rates of possession and trafficking of cannabis are lower in recent years than during the 1970s, production of cannabis has risen substantially (Table 3). The 2007 rate was eight times higher than 30 years ago, although it has remained relatively stable over the past decade. Some of this increase may be attributed to the existence of "marijuana grow-ops", indoor or outdoor facilities where marijuana plants are illegally cultivated. Not only have these types of operations been associated with violent crime, but they can also generate safety hazards, health problems and economic losses for members of the community (RCMP, n.d.).

Using data from a sub-set of police services covering 94% of the population, it is possible to explore the location in which drug offences occur. In 2007, 6 in 10 offences involving the production of cannabis occurred in a residence, 32% were in an open field and 3% in a commercial establishment. In 2006, most cannabis production seizures by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in western Canada, particularly in British Columbia, were from indoor facilities, whereas those in eastern Canada were mainly from outdoor facilities (RCMP, 2007).

The second largest category of drug crimes involves cocaine offences. In 2007, cocaine offences comprised nearly one-quarter of all drug offences known to police, about half of which involved possession and half, trafficking. In contrast to the trend in cannabis offences, the rate of cocaine offences has been increasing in recent years, primarily as a result of increases in possession (Table 4). The rate of cocaine offences was 80% higher than a decade ago, although still well below that for cannabis.

Compared to other types of drug offences, those involving heroin are relatively low. According to the RCMP, heroin is one of the least-used illicit drugs in Canada (RCMP, 2007). In 2007, fewer than 1% of drug-related offences involved heroin, a proportion that has remained fairly constant over the years. Most heroin offences are concentrated in large urban areas, particularly Vancouver.

Police-reported data on offences involving all other types of illicit drugs, such as methamphetamine (crystal meth), ecstasy, "date rape" drugs, LSD and barbiturates are grouped together into one inclusive category.3 Offences involving chemical precursors, which are substances used for the production of many illegal street drugs, are also included in this category. Examples of chemical precursors include ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, substances that are commonly used in cold medications, but which are also used to produce methamphetamine.

Of all categories of drugs, the "other" drug offence rate has risen the most in the past 10 years, up 168% (Table 5). Increases have occurred in virtually all provinces and across each of the major offence types. In its 2008 annual report on organized crime, Criminal Intelligence Service Canada (CISC) states that Canada has become one of the primary source countries in the world for ecstasy. "Super labs", used for the mass production of certain synthetic drugs, such as methamphetamine, have been located by police in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec (CISC, 2008), the same provinces to report the highest rates of illegal production of "other" drugs. Despite increasing over the past 10 years, offences in this category accounted for only 14% of all drug crimes in 2007.

British Columbia reports highest rate of drug offences among the provinces

British Columbia has consistently had a relatively high rate of police-reported drug offences. Regardless of the type of drug or the type of offence, the rates of drug crime in British Columbia have been among the highest in Canada for 30 years. In 2007, the total drug crime rate in this province (654 incidents per 100,000 population) was more than double the rate in Saskatchewan, the next highest province (Table 6, Table 7 and Chart 3). Drug offence rates in Yukon, Nunavut, and particularly the Northwest Territories, also tend to be considerably higher than the national average, as is the case for most crimes.4

Chart 3
Police-reported drug offence rates, by province and territory, 2007

Description

Chart3 Police-reported drug offence rates, by province and territory, 2007

Source: Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Aggregate Uniform Crime Reporting Survey.

In accordance with the province as a whole, relatively high rates of drug offences are found in the census metropolitan areas (CMA) of Vancouver, Victoria and Abbotsford (Table 8, Table 9 and Chart 4). Along with Trois-Rivières and Gatineau, these cities have reported the highest rates in Canada for the past five years. The rates in Vancouver and Victoria have been among the highest in the country since 1991, when CMA statistics first became available.

Chart 4
Police-reported drug offence rates, by census metropolitan area, 2007

Description

Chart 4 Police-reported drug offence rates, by census metropolitan area, 2007

Source: Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Aggregate Uniform Crime Reporting Survey.

Youth accused of drug offences less likely than in the past to be formally charged

Part of the overall increase in the rate of drug crime can be attributed to increases in youth (aged 12 to 17 years) accused of drug offences (Chart 5). Despite recent fluctuations, the 2007 rate of youth accused of drug offences was double what it was 10 years ago. This increase corresponds with an increase in drug use among youth. According to a national survey of Canadians, illicit drug use among youth has increased consistently since the late 1980s (Health Canada, 2007). In 2007, youth aged 16 and 17 years were among those with the highest rates of drug-related offences (Chart 6).5 While the rate of adults charged with drug offences also rose over the past decade, the increase was much less (+32%) than that for youth.

Chart 5
Youth (12 to 17 years) accused of police-reported drug offences, Canada, 1986 to 2007

Description

Chart 5 Youth (12 to 17 years) accused of police-reported drug offences, Canada, 1986 to 2007

Note: Comparable youth crime data are available beginning in 1986, following the implementation of uniform jurisdictional age classifications in April 1985.
Source: Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Aggregate Uniform Crime Reporting Survey.

Chart 6
Persons accused of police-reported drug offences, by age of accused, 2007

Description

Chart 6 Persons accused of police-reported drug offences, by age of accused, 2007

Note: Excludes accused persons under the age of 12 years as well as those whose age was reported by police as unknown.
Source: Statistics Canada, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Incident-based Uniform Crime Reporting Survey.

Of the over 90,000 persons accused of a drug offence in 2007, youth accounted for 19%, although this varied by type of drug. Youth comprised 24% of those accused of cannabis offences, compared to 5% of all those accused of cocaine offences.

In recent years, the way in which police deal with youth accused of drug offences has changed. Historically, youth were more likely to be charged by police rather than cleared by other means, such as police discretion or a referral to a diversionary program. However, in 2002, for the first time, the number of youth accused of a drug offence who were cleared by other means surpassed the number of youth charged, and has remained well above ever since (Chart 5). In 2007, 62% of youth accused of a drug-related incident were cleared by means other than the laying of a formal charge compared to 42% a decade ago.

This change in police charging practices coincides with the implementation of the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) which came into effect on April 1st, 2003. One of the key objectives of the YCJA was to divert youth who commit non-violent crimes away from the court system and to increase the use of extrajudicial measures, such as cautions or community program referrals (Department of Justice Canada, n.d.).

Among all youth accused of a drug-related offence in 2007, those in British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador and the three territories were most likely to be cleared by other means (Table 10). Conversely, youth in Manitoba, and particularly in Winnipeg, were most likely to be charged.

Crimes associated with drug offences usually relatively minor

Information on other types of offences that occur in conjunction with drug offences is available from a sub-set of police service covering 94% of the population. In 2007, about one-quarter of drug-related incidents also involved at least one non-drug violation.6 This compares to 11% of Criminal Code incidents in general.

The offences most often associated with drug-related incidents tend to be relatively minor in nature. Administration of justice offences (such as failure to comply with an order or breach of probation) occurred in about one-third of all drug-related incidents as did property offences, usually possession of stolen goods. A weapon offence was involved in 14% of drug-related incidents and 11% were associated with a violent offence.7

Half of all drug-related court cases are stayed, withdrawn, dismissed or discharged

Drug-related cases represent approximately 7% of both adult and youth criminal court caseloads.8 In 2006/2007, there were nearly 25,000 adult court cases and about 3,700 youth court cases in which a drug-related charge was the most serious offence.

Court cases in which the drug-related charge was the most serious offence were more likely than cases in general to be stayed, withdrawn, dismissed or discharged. Cases may be stayed, withdrawn, dismissed or discharged for a variety of reasons including court-sponsored diversion programs, lack of evidence or as a result of resolution discussions between the prosecution and the accused.9 In 2006/2007, about half of all drug-related court cases (43% for adults and 51% for youth) ended due to one of these four reasons. This compares to 30% of all adult court cases and 38% of all youth court cases.

About half of adult cases (55%) and youth cases (48%) involving drug-related charges in 2006/2007 resulted in a finding of guilt. For adults, sentences were more severe for convictions involving drug trafficking than drug possession. Just over half of all adults convicted of trafficking in 2006/2007 were sentenced to custody, with an average sentence length of 278 days. In comparison, 16% of adults convicted of possession were sentenced to custody, with an average sentence of 19 days. Adults convicted of drug possession were more likely to receive a fine (44%) or probation (28%) as the most serious sentence imposed. Among youth, the most common type of sentence was probation, regardless of whether or not the conviction involved possession or trafficking of drugs (45% and 61%, respectively).

Summary

In 2007, the police-reported rate of drug offences in Canada reached its highest point in 30 years. Most drug offences continued to involve cannabis, although the rate of cannabis offences has generally declined in recent years. In contrast, the rates of cocaine and "other" type drugs, such as crystal meth and ecstasy, have risen.

Part of the increase in the overall rate of drug crime can be attributed to an increase in the rate of youth accused of drug offences, which doubled over the past decade. In recent years, most youth accused of a drug offence have been cleared by means other than formal charging by police, such as police discretion or referral to a diversion program.
 
In 2006/2007, about half of all drug-related court cases were stayed, withdrawn, dismissed or discharged. If convicted, youth were most often sentenced to probation. Probation was also the most common sentence for adults convicted of drug possession; however, adults convicted of drug trafficking were more often sentenced to custody.

Detailed data tables

Table 1 Police-reported drug offences, by type of drug, Canada, 1977 to 2007

Table 2 Police-reported drug offences, by type of offence, Canada, 1977 to 2007

Table 3 Police-reported cannabis offences, by type of offence, Canada, 1977 to 2007

Table 4 Police-reported cocaine offences, by type of offence, Canada, 1977 to 2007

Table 5 Police-reported "other" drug offences, by type of offence, Canada, 1977 to 2007

Table 6 Police-reported drug offences, by type of drug, by province and territory, 2007

Table 7 Police-reported drug offences, by type of offence, by province and territory, 2007

Table 8 Police-reported drug offences, by type of drug, by census metropolitan area, 2007

Table 9 Police-reported drug offences, by type of offence, by census metropolitan area, 2007

Table 10 Youth (12 to 17 years) accused of police-reported drug offences, by province and territory, 2007

References

Adlaf, Edward M., Patricia Begin, & Edward Sawka (Eds.). 2005. Canadian Addiction Survey (CAS): A national survey of Canadians' use of alcohol and other drugs: Prevalence of use and related harms. Detailed report.Ottawa: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.
www.ccsa.ca/2005 CCSA Documents/ccsa-004028-2005.pdf (accessed April 20, 2009).

Criminal Intelligence Service Canada. 2008. "2008 Report on Organized Crime". Cat. # PS61-1/2008. www.cisc.gc.ca/annual_reports/annual_report_2008/document/report_oc_2008_e.pdf (accessed March 26, 2009).

Department of Justice Canada. n.d. "The Youth Criminal Justice Act: Summary and Background".
www.justice.gc.ca/eng/pi/yj-jj/pdf/back-hist.pdf (accessed March 26, 2009).

Duchesne, Doreen. 1997. "Street Prostitution in Canada". Juristat. Vol. 17, no. 2. Statistics Canada. Catalogue no. 85-002-X.
www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/85-002-x/85-002-x1997002-eng.pdf (accessed March  26, 2009).

Health Canada. 2007. Canadian Addiction Survey (CAS): A National Survey of Canadians' Use of Alcohol and Other Drugs: Substance Use by Canadian Youth. Health Canada. Catalogue no. H128-1/07-499E.
www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/alt_formats/hecs-sesc/pdf/pubs/adp-apd/cas-etc/youth-jeunes/youth-jeunes-eng.pdf (accessed April 20, 2009).

Pernanen, Kai, Marie-Marthe Cousineau, Serge Brochu and Fu Sun. 2002. "Proportions of Crimes Associated with Alcohol and Other Drugs in Canada". Ottawa: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.
www.ccsa.ca/2003 and earlier CCSA Documents/ccsa-009105-2002.pdf (accessed April 20, 2009).

Quann, Nathalie. 2003. "Drug Use and Offending". Questions & Answers. Ottawa: Department of Justice Canada, Research and Statistics Division.
www.justice.gc.ca/eng/pi/rs/rep-rap/qa-qr/qa02_2-qr02_2/qa02_2.pdf (accessed March 26, 2009).

Rehm, J., D. Baliunas, S. Brochu, B. Fischer, W. Gnam, J. Patra, S. Popova, A. Sarnocinska-Hart and B. Taylor in collaboration with E. Adlaf, M. Recel and E. Single. 2006. "The Costs of Substance Abuse in Canada, 2002: Highlights". Ottawa: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.
www.ccsa.ca/2006 CCSA Documents/ccsa-011332-2006.pdf (accessed March 26, 2009).

Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). 2007. "Drug Situation Report".
www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/drugs-drogues/pdf/drug-drogue-situation-2007-eng.pdf (accessed March 26, 2009).

Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). n.d. "Marihuana Grow Operations".
www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/fio-ofi/grow-ops-culture-eng.htm (accessed March 26, 2009).

Notes

  1. For further information on the National Anti-Drug Strategy, see www.nationalantidrugstrategy.gc.ca.
  2. This report was partially funded by Public Safety Canada.
  3. Beginning in April 2008, the Incident-based Uniform Crime Reporting Survey began capturing information on two new types of drugs: methamphetamine (crystal meth) and methylenedioxyamphetamine (ecstasy).
  4. For further information on crimes rates in general, see Dauvergne, M. 2008. "Crime Statistics in Canada, 2007". Catalogue no. 85-002-X, Vol. 28, no. 7. Statistics Canada: Ottawa.
  5. The detailed characteristics of persons accused of drug-related offences are based upon data from the Incident-based Uniform Crime Reporting survey. In 2007, data on accused persons was reported by police services covering 90% of the population of Canada, slightly lower than the proportion for incidents.
  6. This analysis excludes drug-related incidents that may have occurred in conjunction with traffic offences as this information is not available from the UCR survey.
  7. Percentages do not add up to 100% as categories are not mutually exclusive. The Incident-based Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR2) Survey captures up to four violations for each incident.
  8. Information is derived from the Adult Criminal Court Survey and the Youth Court Survey and refers to cases in which a drug-related charge was the most serious offence. Excludes data from Quebec municipal courts.
  9. The resolution discussion may result in the accused being convicted of a different charge in the same case, even though the drug charge was not convicted.