Drug-related offences in Canada, 2013

By Adam Cotter, Jacob Greenland, and Maisie Karam

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Research has linked illicit drugs to crime in a number of ways, including the involvement of organized crime in the supply and distribution of illegal substances (Royal Canadian Mounted Police 2010; Canadian Border Services Agency 2014), the social disorganization that can be associated with drug abuse (International Narcotics Control Board 2011), and individuals who commit crime while under the influence of illegal drugs or for the purposes of acquiring illegal drugs (Bennett, Holloway & Farrington 2008; International Narcotics Control Board 2003; Pernanen et al. 2002). The relationship between drugs and crime is also reflected in Canada's National Anti-Drug Strategy, which includes a law enforcement component along with goals of prevention and treatment (Collin 2006; Department of Justice 2012). Additionally, controlled drugs and substances account for nearly half (43%) of all seizures made at Canadian borders (Canadian Border Services Agency 2012). Furthermore, debates continue in Canada and elsewhere on the issue of legalization or decriminalization of some illegal substances (Collin 2006).

The recent legalization or decriminalization of cannabis elsewhere, including some U.S. states, has also contributed to ongoing debates around this issue in Canada. Self-reported surveys indicate that Canadians, both adult and youth, have some of the higher rates of cannabis use in the world (Duff et al. 2011; UNICEF 2013). Public opinion polls suggest that the majority of Canadians support the legalization or decriminalization of cannabis (Forum Research 2012), and Canadian youth tend to view cannabis as less harmful than other illegal substances (Porath-Waller et al. 2013).

Data on the types of drugs most frequently involved in police-reported offences, the characteristics of persons involved in the drug-related criminal incidents, and the outcomes of drug-related cases heard in Canada's criminal courts can provide valuable information about the nature of drug-related crime in Canada. Drug-related enforcement can require considerable police, court, and criminal justice resources. This is particularly important as law enforcement is one component of Canada's federal drug strategy.

This Juristat article examines drug-related offences in Canada in two sections. In the first section, data from the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Survey is used to examine short- and long-term trends in police-reported drug offences in Canada for six categories of drug: cannabis (marijuana), cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine (crystal meth), methylenedioxyamphetamine (ecstasy), and an "other" category comprising all other substances listed in Canada's Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA).Note 1 Trends at the provincial, territorial and census metropolitan area levels are also explored. In the second section, linked data from the UCR and the Integrated Criminal Court Survey (ICCS) is used to explore court case characteristics, sentencing outcomes, and key indicators of cases involving at least one drug-related charge in Canada's adult criminal and youth courts.

It is important to note that trends in drug-related offences over time and between jurisdictions may be affected by differences in available resources, enforcement priorities, and enforcement practices within and between jurisdictions.

Section I: Police-reported drug offences

Police-reported drug offences decline in 2013, but remain higher than in past years

Of the nearly 2.1 million incidentsNote 2 reported by police in 2013, 5% involved an offence against the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA)Note 3 as the most serious violation.Note 4 In other words, one in every twenty incidents reported by police was primarily drug-related.

The rate of police-reported drug offences has generally been increasing since the early 1990s, in contrast to the trend in the overall police-reported crime rate (Chart 1). Since peaking in 1991, the police-reported crime rateNote 5 has decreased by half (-50%). Over the same period, the rate of police-reported drug offences has increased 52%.

Chart 1 Drug offences and crime rate

Description for chart 1

Police reported approximately 109,000 CDSA violations in 2013, about 1,000 fewer than in 2012. As a result, the rate of police-reported drug offences decreased 2% from 2012, to 310 per 100,000 population. Despite the decline, the rate of police-reported drug offences was 13% higher in 2013 than it was a decade earlier in 2003 (Table 1). In total, about seven in ten (71%) police-reported drug offences in 2013 involved possession.

The differing trends in the rate of police-reported crime and police-reported drug offences may be related to differences in enforcement strategies, operational practices and priorities, and available resources across jurisdictions and over time, particularly in the case of drug-related crime. Targeting certain types of offences or offenders may lead to more identification of drug-related incidents by police, rather than necessarily representing an increase in the number of drug-related incidents occurring (Dauvergne 2009). Likewise, declines in other types of crime may allow police to focus more attention and resources on drug-related crime.

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Text box 1
Canadians' use of illicit drugs

Compared to other illegal drugs and substances, cannabis use is more likely to be reported by Canadians.

Self-reported data from the Canadian Tobacco, Alcohol, and Drugs Survey (CTADS 2015) indicate that about 11% of Canadians aged 15 and over reported having used cannabis in 2013, with those age 15 to 19 (22%) or 20 to 24 (26%) reporting higher rates of use than those over 25 (8%). Males (14%) reported a higher prevalence of past-year use than females (7%). About one-third (34%) of Canadians reported having used cannabis at least once in their lifetime.

In addition, 2% of Canadians reported having used an illicit drug other than cannabis (i.e., cocaine or crack, speed, ecstasy, hallucinogens or heroin) within the past year. As with cannabis, youth (15 to 19 years) (5%) and young adults (20 to 24 years) (6%) reported a higher prevalence of past-year use than adults (1%) (25 years and over).

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Cannabis possession accounts for more than half of all police-reported drug offences

As has been the case historically, the majority of police-reported drug offences in 2013 involved cannabis (67%) (Chart 2). While the rate of cannabis offences remained substantially higher in 2013 than rates for other types of drugs, it decreased slightly from the previous year (-2%). Despite the decline, the rate of cannabis offences was 8% higher than a decade earlier in 2003.

In recent years, the rate of police-reported cannabis offences was highest in 2011. However, the rate of cannabis offences in Canada peaked in 1981, before declining and reaching its lowest point in 1991 (119 per 100,000). The decline in the police-reported rate of drug offences in the early 1980s was largely driven by a decline in possession offences and may be related to the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which in part introduced protections against unreasonable searches and seizures by police (Rosenberg 2009).

Chart 2 Drug offences, by type of substance

Description for chart 2

Of the roughly 73,000 police-reported cannabis offences in 2013, nearly 59,000 (80%) were possession offences. In 2013, possession of cannabis accounted for 54% of all police-reported drug crime. While the rate of cannabis possession (168 per 100,000) remained relatively stable from 2012 (+1%), it was 28% higher than it was in 2003, and more than double (+114%) the rate in 1991, when it was at its lowest point. In contrast, police-reported cannabis supply offences (trafficking, importing, exporting, and production) have decreased in recent years (Chart 3A). The rate of cannabis supply offences (41 per 100,000) in 2013 was 10% lower than that of 2012 and 35% below the rate in 2003. With the exception of a peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, the rate of cannabis supply offences has been relatively stable since 1983.

Chart 3A Cannabis offences, by type of offence

Description for chart 3A

In 2013, there were about 17,500 police-reported cocaine offences, representing a rate of 50 incidents per 100,000 population and a 7% decrease in rate from 2012. Although the rate of cocaine offences was higher than it was in 2003, it was lower than it was at its peak in 2007 (Chart 3B). After cannabis, offences involving cocaine were the next most frequent police-reported drug offences in 2013, as has been the case each year since 1988. Unlike cannabis and other illicit drugs where the majority of offences are related to possession, cocaine-related offences tend to have a higher proportion of offences related to supply (56% in 2013).

Chart 3B Cocaine offences, by type of offence

Description for chart 3B

Offences involving other types of drugs or controlled substances, such as heroin, methamphetamines (crystal meth), ecstasy, or other substances, have generally been increasing since 1995 (Chart 3C).Note 6 The rate of offences involving other drugs increased slightly (+1%) in 2013, and reached 52 incidents per 100,000 population. This increase was driven by an increase in possession offences (+4%), as offences involving the supply of other drugs decreased from the previous year (-3%). More specifically, offences involving the possession of crystal meth (+27%) and heroin (+16%) drove the increase.

Chart 3C Other controlled drugs and substances, by type of offence

Description for chart 3C

British Columbia reports highest provincial rate of police-reported drug offences

As with crime in general, rates of police-reported drug offences vary by province and territory. In 2013, a considerable decrease in the rate of drug offences in Saskatchewan (-13%), along with a modest increase in British Columbia (+3%), resulted in British Columbia having the highest police-reported drug offence rate among the provinces (576 per 100,000) (Table 2). Since 1982, British Columbia has reported the highest rate of drug-related crime among the provinces each year, with the exception of 2012, where Saskatchewan reported a slightly higher rate. Cannabis accounted for about two-thirds (69%) of all police-reported drug offences in British Columbia in 2013.

In 2013, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut had police-reported drug offence rates that were higher than any province (1,289 per 100,000 and 1,051 per 100,000, respectively) (Table 2). In contrast, the rate of police-reported drug offences in Yukon was about half that of the other territories (564 per 100,000), roughly aligning with the rate reported in British Columbia. These trends have held over the past decade.

Seven of the ten provinces and two of the three territories recorded a rate of drug-related offences in 2013 that was above their previous ten-year average (Chart 4). New Brunswick, Ontario, British Columbia, and Yukon were the only exceptions, while rates in Saskatchewan (+36%), Newfoundland and Labrador (+27%), and Manitoba (+24%) were substantially higher than their average over the previous ten years.

Chart 4 Drug offences, by province and territory

Description for chart 4

In each province, cannabis accounted for a higher proportion of drug offences than any other substance. British Columbia, with 398 cannabis-related offences per 100,000 population, had the highest rate of police-reported cannabis offences among the provinces, followed by Saskatchewan (293 per 100,000) and Nova Scotia (236 per 100,000). British Columbia also reported the highest provincial rate of offences involving crystal meth (28 per 100,000). In contrast, Saskatchewan reported the highest rate of cocaine offences among the provinces (136 per 100,000), while the rate of offences involving other controlled drugs and substances was highest in Prince Edward Island (79 per 100,000).

Among the territories, rates of cannabis offences in the Northwest Territories (930 per 100,000) and Nunavut (1,000 per 100,000) were about five times higher than the national average, while Yukon reported a rate of cannabis-related offences that was more similar to the provinces (302 per 100,000). Similar to the provinces, cannabis accounted for the majority of police-reported drug offences in each territory. That said, the rates of cocaine-related offences in the Northwest Territories (305 per 100,000) and Yukon (210 per 100,000) were considerably higher than the national rate (50 per 100,000), while Nunavut recorded the lowest rate of cocaine-related offences of any province or territory (17 per 100,000). The rate of other CDSA offences was similar between the provinces and the territories, and there were no methamphetamine-related offences reported in any territory.

Kelowna reports highest rate of drug offences

The trend at the provincial level was reflected among Canada's census metropolitan areasNote 7 (CMAs), as British Columbia's four CMAs reported among the highest rates of police-reported drug offences in 2013. Kelowna, with a rate of 885 police-reported drug offences per 100,000 population, reported the highest rate among Canada's CMAs for the fourth consecutive year. Vancouver (464 per 100,000) recorded the second highest rate. While Gatineau (457) and Regina (441) had the next highest rates, Abbotsford–Mission (418) and Victoria (417), the remaining CMAs in British Columbia, reported the fifth- and sixth-highest rates among CMAs, respectively (Table 3; Chart 5).

Chart 5 Drug offences, by census metropolitan area

Description for chart 5

Kelowna's comparatively high drug offence rate was the result of offences involving a number of different illicit substances. Among CMAs, Kelowna reported the highest rates of cannabis-related offences (563 per 100,000) and cocaine-related offences (192 per 100,000). Only Gatineau (63 per 100,000) and Trois-Rivières (55 per 100,000) reported higher rates of offences involving methamphetamines than Kelowna (42 per 100,000), while Greater Sudbury (90 per 100,000) was the only CMA to report a higher rate of offences involving other controlled drugs and substances than Kelowna (89 per 100,000) (Table 3).

While different substances contributed to Kelowna's overall rate of police-reported drug offences, possession offences accounted for the majority (80%) of these violations. With 707 possession offences per 100,000 population, Kelowna reported a drug possession rate that was nearly double that of Vancouver, the CMA with the next highest rate (386 per 100,000). Around 70% of drug possession offences in Kelowna and Vancouver are cannabis possession. Kelowna also reported the highest rate of drug production offences among CMAs, with a rate of 56 incidents per 100,000 population.

The rate of police-reported drug crime can be impacted by police resources, priorities, and operational plans. Kelowna, for example, identified a focus on drug-related crime as one of their 2013 detachment priorities as part of an ongoing crime reduction strategy (Kelowna Police Services 2012; Kelowna Police Services 2013). In addition to Kelowna reporting the highest rate of drug offences among CMAs for the fourth consecutive year in 2013, their rate was 42% higher than the previous year and 81% higher than it was five years prior. Kelowna's investment in addressing drug-related crime may have contributed to their relatively high rate of police-reported drug offences.

Windsor, despite recording a rate of drug offences that was among the lowest of Canada's CMAs, had the highest rate of police-reported offences involving the import or export of drugs. Windsor's rate of 78 incidents of import/export per 100,000 population was about 8 times higher than the CMA with the next highest rate, Toronto (10 per 100,000). Windsor's high rate of police-reported drug import and export offences is partially related to the Ambassador Bridge, which connects Windsor with Detroit, Michigan, and is the busiest crossing point between Canada and the United States (Royal Canadian Mounted Police 2010).

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Text box 2
Offences related to drug violations and drug use

The analysis of UCR data in this Juristat is based on police-reported incidents where a violation against the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act is the most serious violation within the incident. That said, police are able to submit up to four violations in an incident, and it is therefore possible to analyze incidents where another, more serious offence may be associated with a drug-related offence.

In 2013, just over 5% of all police-reported incidents contained a CDSA violation as the most serious violation, while less than 1% (6,855) of all police-reported incidents included a CDSA violation that was not the most serious. Of incidents where a CDSA violation was not the most serious violation, 44% involved violent offence, while in a further 25% the most serious violation was a property offence, and 32% involved another Criminal Code offence as the most serious violation. More specifically, the violations most commonly associated with drug offences were assaultNote 8 (29%), weapons violationsNote 9 (27%), and breaking and entering (8%) (Text box 2 chart).

Text box 2 chart Violations associated with drug violations

Description for chart of text box 2

Another measure of drug-related crime is those offences where the accused person or victims is under the influence of intoxicating substances during the commission of the offence. The Homicide Survey collects information on whether or not the accused person or the victim was under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the incident.

Over the past decade, alcohol and/or drug consumption has been reported by police in the majority of homicides, with just under six in ten victims (59%) and nearly three-quarters of accused persons (72%) under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or another intoxicating substance at the time of the incident (Cotter 2014). In 10% of cases, the victims or accused persons were under the influence of illegal drugs alone at the time of the incident. While this information is not collected by the UCR Survey, research suggests that a large proportion of those incarcerated, both in Canada and internationally, were under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the incident that led to their imprisonment (Johnson 2004; Kouyoumdjian et al. 2014).

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Open-area cannabis production reported more often in Eastern Canada

Cannabis production accounted for 96% of all police-reported drug production offences in 2013. Of the nearly 4,800 reported cannabis production offences, about two-thirds (64%) occurred in a private home or surrounding structure (such as a garage or shed), while more than one-quarter (27%) occurred in an open area (areas of public access, parks, playgrounds, bodies of water, etc.) (data not shown). The location for these types of offences, however, varied across the country, with the eastern part of the country generally having a higher proportion of production incidents which occurred in an open area. In Alberta, for example, 89% of police-reported cannabis production offences occurred in a private home, compared to just 3% in an open area. In contrast, Quebec (40%) and the Atlantic provinces (Newfoundland and Labrador 33%, Prince Edward Island 47%, and New Brunswick 30%), with the exception of Nova Scotia (21%), each reported a proportion of open area cannabis production offences that was higher than the national average.

Most drug-related offences solved by police; departmental discretion more common for cannabis possession

Of all police-reported drug-related offences in 2013, more than three-quarters (78%) were cleared, or solved, by police. In contrast, 41% of Criminal Code incidents (excluding traffic) reported to police in 2013 were solved. The comparatively high clearance rate was driven by possession offences, as 85% of such offences were solved by police. Possession offences typically involve the presence of drugs on a person and as such are more likely to be cleared than other types of offences. In contrast, 67% of trafficking offences, 50% of offences involving import or export, and 36% of production offences were solved by police. When looking at the type of drug, offences involving methamphetamines (83%) or heroin (83%) were most likely to be solved by police, while those involving other controlled drugs and substances (70%) or cocaine (73%) had the lowest clearance rates.

The Incident-based Uniform Crime Reporting Survey also allows for more detailed information on the clearance status of police-reported offences. In general, drug-related offences are more likely than crime in general to be cleared through departmental discretion (26% compared to 8%). More than four in ten (41%) of all cleared cannabis offences were cleared through departmental discretion, while 17% of all other cleared drug offences were cleared by discretion. When looking at possession offences, 45% of cannabis and 24% of other drug types were cleared through departmental discretion. British Columbia, which reported the highest rate of drug-related offences in 2013, also reported the highest proportion of offences cleared by departmental discretion (i.e., by giving a warning, caution, or referral to a community-based program rather than laying a charge). Almost half (47%) of drug-related incidents in British Columbia were cleared through these means, of which the large majority (94%) were related to possession.

Drug-related offences involve younger accused persons than crime in general

In 2013, persons accused of drug-related offences tended to be younger than those accused of crime in general, as the median age of accused persons was 5 years younger for those accused of a drug-related offence (24 years of age compared to 29). The rate of drug-related offences was highest among those ages 18 to 24 years (1,176 per 100,000), considerably higher than the rate among 12 to 17-year-olds (741 per 100,000), and more than double the rate of those age 25 to 34 (580 per 100,000) (Chart 6).

Chart 6 Offences, by age group of accused person

Description for chart 6

While cannabis-related offences accounted for the majority of offences regardless of the age group of the accused person, the highest proportion of cannabis offences was recorded by younger accused. Nine in ten (90%) 12- to 17-year-olds accused of a drug-related offence were accused of an offence involving cannabis (81% for cannabis possession). This proportion decreases with age until the 35 to 44 year old age group when the proportion of offences involving cannabis declined to 52% (Chart 7).

Chart 7 Rate of drug offences, by age group of accused person

Description for chart 7

About two in ten (18%) persons accused of drug-related offences in 2013 were female, a proportion which was slightly lower than for police-reported crime in general, as females accounted for one-quarter (24%) of persons accused of police-reported crime overall. Offences involving the import or export of drugs had the highest proportion of female accused (29%), while possession offences had the lowest (17%). International research suggests that many women who are involved in the drug trade are in lower-ranking, but higher-risk positions, often involving the smuggling or transportation of drugs (United Nations 2014).

There was some variation in the proportion of females accused in drug-related offences by type of drug. Females accounted for about one-quarter of persons accused of a methamphetamine offence (24%) or heroin offence (23%). In contrast, females were comparatively less likely to be accused of an offence involving cannabis (16%).

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Text box 3
Police-reported drug-impaired driving offences stable in 2013

In addition to the data on CDSA offences collected through the UCR Survey, data on impaired driving offences involving illicit drugs are also available. As of July 2008, the Criminal Code allows police to perform compulsory roadside analyses and assessments if they suspect a driver is under the influence of drugs (Owusu-Bempah 2014; Perreault 2013). However, research suggests that determining and measuring the level of drug impairment can be more difficult and less reliable than the measures that exist to detect alcohol-impaired driving (Owusu-Bempah 2014).

In 2013, there were 78,391 police-reported incidents of impaired driving, of which 1,984, or 3%, involved drug-impaired driving. The rate of drug-impaired driving in Canada remained stable in 2013, at 6 per 100,000 population. The vast majority (98%) of drug-impaired driving incidents involved impaired operation, while a smaller proportion involved a refusal to comply or provide a sample (1%) or impaired operation causing death or bodily harm (1%). About one in five (22%) persons accused of drug-impaired driving were women, similar to the proportion of women accused of impaired driving involving alcohol (19%).

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Section II: Completed drug-related cases in Canada's adult criminal and youth courts

Drug-related offences also involve resources from other areas of the criminal justice system, including the criminal courts, as 8% of all completed cases in adult criminal and youth courts in 2011/2012 involved drugsNote 10,Note 11. The previous analyses explored trends in police-reported drug offences in Canada based on data from the UCR where the most serious violation in the incident was a drug offence. This section looks at completed criminal court cases involving at least one drug-related charge in the case – whether or not it was the most serious charge.

For the subsequent analysis, a unique linked database using policing and courts records was created in order to examine trends in completed court cases, sentencing, and characteristics of drug cases by type of drug involved. On its own, the courts database does not differentiate by type of drug; hence a linkage to policing records was necessary. The database created includes completed court cases from adult and youth criminal courts over the period from 2008/2009 through to 2011/2012 where at least one charge in the case was drug-related and where the case was successfully linked to police records (see Text box 4).

More than half of all completed drug-related court cases involved cannabis

From 2008/2009 to 2011/2012, there were 158,910 completed criminal court cases where at least one charge in the case was drug-related and where the court record could be linked to a police-reported incident recordNote 12,Note 13. Of these, 137,182 (86%) were adult criminal cases and 21,728 (14%) were youth cases (Table 4).

Similar to findings from police-reported data, the majority of these completed drug-related cases in adult criminal and youth courts were related to cannabis, including 55% of completed adult drug-related cases and 77% of completed youth drug-related cases (Table 4). Nearly three in ten (29%) completed adult drug-related cases involved cocaine, compared to about one in ten (9%) completed drug-related cases in youth court. The proportions were similar for methamphetamines (2% of all completed cases both for adult criminal and youth court) and all other controlled drugs and substances (14% of completed adult cases versus 12% of completed youth cases).

The majority of completed drug-related cases in adult criminal courts involved charges related to possession (69%). For adults, there was a difference in the proportion of possession cases by type of drug, as nearly eight in ten (79%) completed cases related to cannabis involved possession, while 56% of completed cases related to other drugs were possession cases. Similarly, more than three-quarters (77%) of completed drug-related youth court cases involved possession, with cannabis-related cases more often related to possession than those cases involving other drugs (84% compared to 57%). Meanwhile, about one-quarter (27%) of completed drug-related cases in adult criminal courts involved trafficking, with smaller proportions related to production (4%) and import or export charges (less than 1%) (Table 5).

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Text box 4
Record linkage methodology

The Integrated Criminal Court Survey (ICCS) collects information on charges processed through Canada's adult criminal and youth courts, with charge information based on sections and subsections of federal statutes, including the CDSA. However, the CDSA categorizes controlled drugs and substances according to schedules; each schedule includes multiple controlled drugs and substances. The ICCS captures information on drug-related court cases by schedule; because of the way the CDSA is written, analysis by specific type of drug cannot be undertaken with the ICCS.

The Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Survey, in contrast, allows police to report drug-related violations by specific drug type. Therefore, by linking the courts data with the police-reported data, it becomes possible to analyze adult criminal and youth court statistics by specific type of drug involved.

The record linkage was done using UCR data from 2007 to 2012 and ICCS data from 2008/2009 to 2011/2012. Over this period, 80.4% of all drug-related charges could be linked to police records (see Methodology). Data exclude information from superior courts in Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan as well as municipal courts in Quebec due to the unavailability of data.

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Half of all cannabis-related cases involved a single charge

For both adults and youth, completed cases including cannabis often involved the cannabis-related offence as the only charge in the case. Single charge cases made up 48% of all completed cases for both adults and youth (Table 6). More specifically, cannabis-related possession cases involved a single charge in 55% of completed adult criminal court cases and 50% of youth court cases. Cannabis-related supply cases involved a single charge in 24% of adult cases and 35% of youth cases, respectively.

In contrast, completed cases involving drugs other than cannabis were more likely to involve additional offences in the case. For these types of cases, 23% of adult and 24% of youth cases involved a single charge, roughly half the proportion of cannabis-related cases. Possession cases for drugs other than cannabis involved a single charge in 29% of adult cases and 30% of youth cases, while for supply cases, 15% of cases for both adults and youth were single-charge cases.

British Columbia recorded lowest proportion of cannabis cases

Cannabis-related cases accounted for more than half of all completed drug-related cases in adult criminal court in each provinceNote 14, with the exception of British Columbia, where one-third (32%) of completed drug-related cases involved cannabis (Table 7). Among the provinces, the proportion of completed drug-related cases involving cannabis was highest in Newfoundland and Labrador (69%), Saskatchewan (66%), and Nova Scotia (66%). One factor which may be related to the low proportion of cannabis related court cases is the relatively low charge rate for cannabis offences in British Columbia. In 2013, 28% of accused were cleared by charge in British Columbia, 13 percentage points lower than the next province, Nova Scotia (41%).

Cannabis-related cases also accounted for the majority of completed drug-related youth court cases in all jurisdictions. As with adult courts, British Columbia reported the lowest proportion of cannabis-related completed cases among the provinces (52%), while Saskatchewan (84%) and Ontario (82%) reported the highest.

Type of drug charges associated with completed cases varies by age group

Most completed drug-related adult criminal court cases involved a male accused, regardless of the drug type involved. In total, 85% of accused persons in completed drug-related adult court cases were male, a proportion which ranged from 76% of those accused in cases involving methamphetamines to 88% of those accused in cannabis-related cases.

For male accused as well as for females, the type of drug most frequently seen in completed drug-related cases varied with age. Among youth, cannabis-related cases were the most common for both males (79% of completed drug-related cases against male youth) and females (66% of such cases). This pattern changed with the age of the accused, with cases against men aged 35 to 44 and women 25 to 34 involving drugs other than cannabis accounting for greater proportions of completed drug-related cases. For both males and females in the 55-year and over age group, cannabis-related cases were again more prevalent, with 54% of completed drug-related cases against male accused and 53% of such cases against females involving cannabis.

As the most common type of drug in completed court cases varied with age, so did the types of drug offences. For males, nearly four in five (78%) completed drug-related cases against youth accused involved possession offences, compared to just over half (56%) of those aged 55 and over. A similar pattern was recorded for women, as 77% of completed drug-related cases against youth females and 34% of those cases against females over age 55 involved possession (Chart 8).

Chart 8 Cases involving possession in adult criminal and youth court

Description for chart 8

Cases related to drugs other than cannabis took longer to complete

Drug-related cases processed in adult criminal court generally took longer to complete than non-drug related cases. The median length of time from the first to the final appearance in drug-related cases was 128 days, compared to 111 days for non-drug-related cases. The exception to this were cases involving cannabis, which took considerably less time to complete than non-drug-related cases and cases involving other drug types. Cases involving cannabis, for example, took a median of 105 days from first to final appearance, roughly half as long as the median case length for cases involving heroin (202 days).

The length of a completed case varied depending on the nature of the drug offence, as the median length to complete a possession cases was considerably shorter than the median length of supply-related cases (98 days compared to 223 days). Regardless of the type of drug involved, cases involving supply offences took about twice as long to complete as those related to possession (Chart 9).

Chart 9 Median length of case time - adult criminal court

Description for chart 9

Completed drug-related cases involving cannabis more frequently stayed or withdrawn

In total, just over half (52%) of all drug-related cases completed in adult criminal court resulted in a guilty decision, less than for completed non-drug related cases (63%).Note 15 This was driven by cannabis offences, which made up the majority of completed drug-related cases but were less likely to result in a decision of guilt (44%). Completed cases involving other types of drugs resulted in guilty decisions more often, as with drugs such as heroin (63%), cocaine (62%), and methamphetamines (62%) (Table 8).

While about 47% of all completed drug-related cases were stayed or withdrawn, those involving cannabis were more frequently stayed or withdrawn than those involving other drugs (55% compared to 38%). A stay or withdrawal often occurs, particularly in relatively less serious offences, when the Crown counsel believes that certain conditions or alternative measures, such as community service, restorative justice, referrals to specialized programs, or treatment or education, if completed successfully, are more appropriate than judicial proceedings (Public Prosecution Service of Canada 2014).

Whether a completed drug-related case involved a possession offence or a supply offence generally had little impact on the type of decision reached in adult criminal court. For both types of offences, a decision of guilt was the most common outcome (51% of completed possession cases and 53% of completed supply cases), followed by a stay or withdrawal (48% and 45%). A small proportion of cases resulted in an acquittal (0.2% and 1%) or another decisionNote 16 (0.4% and 0.5%) (Table 8). Broken down by type of drug, cannabis supply offences resulted in a higher proportion of cases with a guilty decision (49%) than cannabis possession offences (43%), while the reverse was true for completed cases involving drugs other than cannabis (56% for supply versus 65% for possession).

Youth courts reported similar breakdowns of decisions by type of drug and by type of offence, with 48% of all completed cases resulting in a decision of guilt (Table 9). Cases related to the possession (42%) or supply (51%) of cannabis were less likely to result in a finding of guilt than those involving the possession (60%) or supply (61%) of other drugs.

However, cases involving methamphetamines more often resulted in a decision of guilt in youth court when compared to adult criminal court (73% compared to 62%). Methamphetamines cases also hold the highest proportion of guilty decisions amongst youth where other drugs range from 44-60% having a decision of guilt. The comparatively high proportion for guilty decisions in youth cases involving methamphetamines was primarily due to the province of Quebec, where 85% of all completed youth methamphetamine cases occurred. The large proportion of methamphetamine-related cases occurring in Quebec is related to a province-wide directive, implemented in 2006, which was focused on targeting offences related to methamphetamines through treatment, awareness, and prevention, with a particular focus on vulnerable groups or those groups with the highest tendencies to use methamphetamines, including youth (Ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux 2006).

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Criminal justice alternatives for drug users and offenders in Canada

Drug treatment court is an alternative to incarceration which aims to decrease drug-related crime, promote drug abstinence, and reduce the effects of substance abuse on the Canadian economy (Government of Canada 2014).

To qualify, the accused is screened by a Crown prosecutor and must plead guilty in a traditional court. Those accused of a violent crime or drug trafficking are ineligible (Lyons 2013). Once qualified, individuals are subjected to a year or more of supervised addiction treatment, as well as weekly meetings with the individual's treatment counsel that includes but is not limited to the judge, the Crown, and the duty counsellor (Lyons 2013). In order to successfully complete the treatment, participants are expected to abstain from drugs and alcohol.

The Integrated Criminal Court Survey is designed to collect data from drug treatment courts in Canada, though coverage of these courts is limited and cannot be isolated. These courts are nevertheless frequently subject to analysis and evaluation through other means. Since 2007, over 1,000 persons charged with a drug-related offence have qualified for and participated in a drug treatment court; about one-third (35%) successfully completed the program or are still enrolled, while the remainder (65%) returned to the regular court system (Department of Justice 2015). In the Canadian context, research suggests that successful graduation from a court-assigned drug treatment program can considerably lessen the frequency of recidivism; however, the completion rate is relatively low (Currie & Raguparan 2013; Public Safety Canada 2008; Somers et al. 2012).

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About half of guilty cases of drug supply offences result in custody

A sentence of custody was imposed in about one-third (32%) of all completed drug-related cases in adult criminal court with a finding of guilt, a proportion which was similar to non-drug-related cases (36%). Among drug cases overall, the median length of custody was approximately ten times longer for supply offences than for possession-related offences (150 days compared to 14 days) (Table 10).

Certain types of drugs and certain types of offences were proportionately more likely to result in sentenced custody. Almost half (46%) of supply offences with a decision of guilt included custody as part of the sentence, a proportion nearly double that of possession-related offences (25%). Guilty cases involving cannabis possession (16%) and supply (27%) less commonly involved custody compared to possession (36%) or supply (55%) of other drugs.

Over four in five (81%) drug-related cases where there was a sentence of custody imposed involved a sentence of less than six months.Note 17 Regardless of the type of drug, cases involving possession typically involved shorter sentences of custody, with about three-quarters for a period of one month or less (Chart 10). Cases involving supply typically resulted in longer sentences of custody than possession cases (for example one year or more), though cases involving supply of cannabis were not likely to result in longer sentences.

Chart 10 Completed cases in adult criminal court sentenced to custody

Description for chart 10

The imposition of a fine was a fairly common penalty imposed in completed drug-related cases (32%), more so than for completed non-drug-related cases (25%). Drug-related cases involving cannabis were distinct from those involving other types of drugs, as completed cases involving cannabis involved a fine in 43% of completed cases with a guilty decision. Proportionately, cases involving other types of drugs included a fine about half as often as cannabis related cases.

Cannabis possession offences involved fines more frequently than cannabis supply offences (52% versus 16%), but often involved lower amounts (a median of $250 compared to $1,000). One-third (33%) of cases involving the possession of drugs other than cannabis involved a fine as part or all of the sentence, compared to 4% of cases involving the supply of other drugs.

About one-third (33%) of all completed drug-related cases involved probation as part or all of the sentence, a proportion similar to non-drug related cases (29%). Little variation in the frequency of probation was recorded between cases involving possession (34%) versus supply (31%), and sentences of probation were also similarly distributed regardless of the type of drug involved.

Probation most common sentence for youth in drug-related cases

In contrast to sentencing outcomes for drug-related guilty cases in adult criminal courts, sentences in youth court involved probation much more frequently than custody or fines (Table 11). Almost two-thirds (63%) of all completed drug-related cases with a decision of guilt in youth court involved a sentence of probation, compared to fewer than one in ten where a sentence of custody (9%) or a fine (7%) was imposed.

Summary

There were about 109,000 police-reported Controlled Drugs and Substances Act violations in 2013, a rate of 310 per 100,000 population. Drug-related violations accounted for about 5% of all incidents reported to police.

As has been the case for more than 30 years, cannabis accounted for the majority of police-reported drug offences, representing about two-thirds of all drug offences in 2013. More specifically, cannabis possession accounted for over half of all police-reported drug offences. British Columbia reported the highest provincial rate of drug offences, while Kelowna had the highest rate among census metropolitan areas.

Cannabis also accounted for the majority of completed drug-related cases in both adult criminal and youth courts. Cannabis-related cases were more likely to be stayed or withdrawn compared to cases involving other types of illicit drugs. In addition, cannabis-related cases, when found guilty, less frequently involved a sentence of custody and more commonly involved fines when compared to other types of drug.

Almost half of all cases with a decision of guilt related to drug supply involved a sentence of custody, compared to about one-quarter of possession cases. In addition, the median length of custody was about ten times longer in supply cases (150 days compared to 14 days).

Survey descriptions

Aggregate Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR1) Survey

The Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Survey was established in 1962 with the co-operation and assistance of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. The scope of the survey is Criminal Code offences and other federal statutes that have been reported to federal, provincial or municipal police services in Canada and that have been substantiated through investigation by these services.

Coverage of the UCR aggregate data reflects virtually 100% of the total caseload for all police services in Canada. One incident can involve multiple offences. In order to ensure comparability, counts presented in this article are based upon the most serious offence in the incident as determined by a standard classification rule used by all police services. Counts based upon all violations are available upon request.

Incident-based Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR2) Survey

The Incident-based Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR2) Survey collects detailed information on criminal incidents that have come to the attention of, and have been substantiated by Canadian police services. Information includes characteristics pertaining to incidents (weapon, location), victims (age, sex, accused-victim relationships) and accused persons (age, sex). In 2013, data from police services covered 99% of the population of Canada.

Integrated Criminal Court Survey

The Integrated Criminal Court Survey (ICCS) is administered by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics (Statistics Canada) in collaboration with provincial and territorial government departments responsible for criminal courts in Canada. The survey collects statistical information on adult and youth court cases involving Criminal Code and other federal statute offences. The primary unit of analysis is a case. A case is defined as one or more charges against an accused person or company that were processed by the courts at the same time and received a final decision. A case combines all charges against the same person having one or more key overlapping dates (date of offence, date of initiation, date of first appearance, date of decision, or date of sentencing) into a single case.

Drug-related cases are defined using the "any in the case" method. In other words, a case that has more than one charge is represented by the charge which is drug-related, regardless of whether or not it is the most serious charge in the case. If there is more than one drug charge, the case is represented by the most serious drug-related charge, selected according to the following rules. First, decisions are considered and the drug charge with the "most serious decision" (MSD) is selected.

Second, in cases where two or more drug charges result in the same MSD (e.g., guilty), the severity of the specific offences is considered by using the Crime Severity Index weight. Finally, charges which specify a type of drug take precedent over drug-related charges which do not specify a drug type (i.e., precursors or equipment).

In 2011/2012, ICCS coverage reflects all cases completed in adult Canadian criminal courts with the exception of superior courts in Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan as well as municipal courts in Quebec. Information could not be extracted from these electronic reporting systems and was therefore unavailable.

The absence of data from superior courts in these five jurisdictions may have resulted in an underestimation of the severity of sentences since some of the most serious cases, which are likely to result in the most severe sentences, are processed in superior courts. There may also be an underestimation of case elapsed times as more serious cases generally require more court appearances and take more time to complete.

Cases are counted according to the fiscal year in which they are completed. Each year, the ICCS database is "frozen" at the end of March for the production of court statistics pertaining to the preceding fiscal year. However, these counts do not include cases that were pending an outcome at the end of the reference period. If a pending outcome is reached in the next fiscal year, then these cases are included in the completed case counts for that fiscal year. However, if a one-year period of inactivity elapses, then these cases are deemed complete and the originally published counts for the previous fiscal year are subsequently updated and reported in the next year's release of the data. For example, upon the release of 2011/2012 data, the 2010/2011 data are updated with revisions for cases that were originally pending an outcome in 2010/2011 but have since been deemed complete due to a one-year period of inactivity. Data are revised once and are then permanently "frozen". Historically, updates to a previous year's numbers have resulted in an increase of about 2%.

Lastly, there are many factors that influence variations between jurisdictions. These may include Crown and police charging practices, the number, types and severity of offences, and various forms of diversion programs. In particular, trends in drug-related offences are subject to police resources, priorities, and enforcement. Therefore, any comparisons between jurisdictions should be interpreted with caution.

Methodology

As part of the analysis of drug-related crime in Canada, a deterministic record linkage was performed by Statistics Canada, linking police-reported incidents from the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey (UCR 2, 2007-2012) with their related court charges from the Integrated Criminal Court Survey (ICCS, 2008/2009 to 2011/2012). The scope of the linkage included all completed court cases in adult criminal and youth courts in Canada with at least one charge which was related to a drug offence.

The record linkage project paired in-scope completed court cases with a corresponding police-reported incident, based on a specific set of variables, including province, accused soundex (an algorithm that encodes names for confidentiality reasons), date of birth of the accused, sex of the accused, and the date of the offence.

For court charges which linked to a police-reported incident involving two or more drug types, the most serious drug type was imputed based on seriousness as determined by average sentences based on the Crime Severity Index weights, according to the following order: heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, other Controlled Drugs and Substances, ecstasy, cannabis.

The final linkage rate, after removing duplicate records and potentially false or bad links, was 80.4%. There was no bias in the linkage rate for guilty or non-guilty cases. Linkage rates for all years were close to 80%, with the earliest years having slightly lower rates.

Detailed data tables

Table 1 Police-reported Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) violations, by type of substance, Canada, 2012 and 2013

Table 2 Police-reported Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) violations, by type of substance, by province and territory, 2013

Table 3 Police-reported Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) violations, by type of substance, by census metropolitan area, 2013

Table 4 Charges and cases completed in adult criminal and youth court, by type of drug, Canada, 2008/2009 to 2011/2012

Table 5 Cases completed in adult criminal and youth courts, by type of offence and type of drug, Canada, 2008/2009 to 2011/2012

Table 6 Completed drug-related cases in adult criminal and youth courts, by number of charges and type of drug, Canada, 2008/2009 to 2011/2012

Table 7 Completed cases in adult criminal and youth courts, where at least one charge is drug-related, by province or territory, 2008/2009 to 2011/2012

Table 8 Completed drug-related cases in adult criminal court, by decision, type of offence, and type of drug, Canada, 2008/2009 to 2011/2012

Table 9 Completed drug-related cases in youth court, by decision, type of offence, and type of drug, Canada, 2008/2009 to 2011/2012

Table 10 Completed drug-related cases with a decision of guilt in adult criminal court, by selected type of sentence, type of offence, and type of drug, Canada, 2008/2009 to 2011/2012

Table 11 Completed drug-related cases with a decision of guilt in youth court, by selected type of sentence, type of offence, and type of drug, Canada, 2008/2009 to 2011/2012

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Notes

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