Special Committee on Illegal Drugs

37th Parliament - 1st Session

Research Program


To conduct a programme of research to inform the work of the Senate Special Committee on Canada’s Anti-Drug Legislation and Policies.



The Senate of Canada recently set up a Special Committee on Canada’s Anti-Drug Legislation and Policies. This Committee aims to: (1) provide Canadians with truthful and rigorous information and facts about illegal drugs; (2) assess the Canadian society’s moral standards with regard to illegal drugs; and (3) provide the Canadian government with the necessary information in order to develop and implement adequate and appropriate legislation and policies with regard to currently illegal drugs.

In particular, the Special Committee will:

  1. review the federal government’s policy on illegal drugs, its effectiveness and the extent to which it is fairly enforced;
  2. develop a national harm reduction policy, specifically to focus on the use and abuse of drugs as a social and health problem;
  3. study harm reduction models adopted by other countries and their applicability in Canada, including the possibility of using regulatory powers as a means of implementing such an approach;
  4. examine Canada’s international role and obligations;
  5. explore the effects of cannabis on health and examine the potential effects of alternative policies;
  6. examine any other relevant issue.

In developing its recommendations, the Special Committee will hold public hearings, hear witnesses and consider the results of the programme of research.


Objectives of the research programme:

The programme of research will:

contribute to the work of the Special Committee, especially by making the best use of the contributions of experts and researchers testifying before the Special Committee;

provide Canadians thorough and rigorous information on research evidence on the use and abuse of drugs; their effects on individuals and communities; various models of regulation ad control and their effects and economic and social costs; international obligations under existing treaties and conventions and relevant international political considerations ;

assist the Special Committee in developing its orientations and recommendations and generally contribute to the elaboration of rational policies for Canada in matters of regulation and control of drugs.


Overall approach of the programme of research:

The programme of research must assist the Special Committee in developing its orientations and recommendations and, therefore, must remain grounded and concrete. It is proposed to conduct a series of meta-analyses of existing scientific research from Canada and elsewhere. In specific instances, new research may be required. Also, systematic information will be obtained through the testimonies of experts and academics. The overall design and coordination of the programme of research, as well as scientific advice to the Special Committee will be provided by the Director of Research hired by the Special Committee. Research personnel from the Senate, the Library of Parliament, relevant federal departments, universities and research organizations will contribute to the elaboration, validation and realization of the programme of research.



The programme of research will be organized around 5 key axes each dealing with the context of use and regulation of illicit drugs:

socio-historical, anthropological, criminological, geopolitical and economics issues;

medical and pharmacological aspects;

legal aspects in a national perspective;

legal aspects in an international perspective;

ethical issues and standards and norms of behaviour in Canada.


Description of the axes of work:

First axis:

socio-historical, geopolitical, anthropological, criminological and economics issues

This axis of work will lay the context for a better understanding of modes of consumption, production, circulation, and regulation of illicit drugs and their social, cultural, economical, political and criminological determinants and effects. Exploration of these issues will help specify historical and socio-demographic variations within Canadian society on issues related to the use of illicit drugs. Also, aspects of the research will examine the geopolitics of drug routes and trade. Furthermore, they will aim to clarify the complex relationship between drugs and crime.

Studies from various disciplines (history, anthropology, sociology, economics, political science, criminology) will be identified, examined, and synthesized with a view to clarify the terms of the debate, provide a context to better understand the origins and impacts of our current legislative framework and policies, and identify some of the key gaps in knowledge. The key questions will be:

What are the key historical patterns in the production, use, consumption, circulation and regulation of drugs?

What is the relationship between the production, use, consumption, circulation and regulation of drugs and religious and socio-cultural circumstances?

What are the relationships between the production, use, consumption, circulation and regulation of drugs and socio-demographic characteristics of the Canadian population?

What are the key internal and international drug routes and how are they related to national and international political and policy issues?

What are the relationships between various drugs and how have current distinctions between licit and illicit drugs been created?

What are the relationships between the production, use, consumption, circulation and regulation of drugs and criminality?

What are the key economics issues in the production, use, consumption, circulation and regulation of drugs?


Second axis:

Medical and pharmacological aspects

The use of drugs, especially cannabis, for medical purposes occupies a central place in current debates on drugs and their regulation. It should be remembered that medical uses of drugs have a long history and that, in many ancient societies, drug use was restricted to medical (and/or religious) purposes only. It is also well known that most pharmacological products originate from plants, for the large part located in illicit drug producing developing countries. It will be important to explore these links. It will also be important to produce state of the art reviews on knowledge related to the physiological and psychological effects of various drugs.

The key research questions are:

How have drugs been used for medical purposes in various societies and at various times?

What is the state of knowledge on the therapeutic properties of various drugs?

What is the state of knowledge on the physiological effects of various drugs, especially in respect of addictive capacity?

What is the state of knowledge on the psychological effects of drugs, especially in respect of dependence?

What is the relative importance of drug producing plants in the pharmacological industry and production of medicinal drugs?

What is the current state of knowledge on the effects of various forms of treatment for drug dependence and addiction problems, their impacts and their costs?


Third axis:

Legal aspects from a national perspective

Various laws and regulations as well as investigation and sanctioning capacities exist in Canada to control the use, consumption, production and circulation of drugs. Canadian case law has changed since the adoption of the Charter of Rights (1982) and possibly international conventions such as the Vienna Convention (1988). Different approaches are currently in use in different parts of the country, depending on political and other social circumstances, including harm reduction and zero tolerance policies. It will be key to determine what are the concrete relationships between these approaches in the field. Overall, this part of the programme will examine the legislative and control arsenal, its rationality and objectives, from the standpoints of criminology, law, history, sociology and economics.

The key questions are:

What is the history of and the logic to the classification of drugs into licit and illicit ones?

What is the history of and the logic to the different regulatory and control modes of drugs in Canada?

What is the history of and logic to the criminalization and penalization modes in Canada?

What is the state of case law in respect of the legislative and regulatory arsenal relating to the production, use, consumption and circulation of drugs in Canada?

What is the state of case law on police powers and sentences in relation to drugs issues?

What are the effects of criminalization and penalization in matters of drugs on the justice system (and its various components), the prison system and criminal careers of delinquents?

What are the economic and social costs of the various modes of regulation, control and criminalization in matters of drugs?

What are the relations between justice and public health policies and departments in matters of drugs?


Fourth axis:

Legal and political issues in an international perspective

Canada is a party to various treaties and conventions in relation to drugs, their production, consumption, circulation and control. It will be important to assess how precise and binding these instruments are. Also, these treaties and conventions are themselves part of a larger array of international instruments, especially on human and political rights; it will be essential to determine the interrelationships between these instruments. Furthermore, elements of international relations and international economics may impact on the choice of regulatory system adopted by individual countries. While these considerations have no legal implications per se, they nevertheless should be taken into consideration and better explained to Canadians. Finally, other countries may have adopted different regulatory modes and approaches to deal with drugs issues; it will be interesting to look at these various models and how countries have adapted to their international obligations. The disciplines of law and political science will help clarify these issues.

The key questions are:

What are the main treaties and conventions in matters of drugs?

What is their history and how do they relate to broader issues of international affairs?

What constraints, if any, do these treaties and conventions impose on Canada?

Beyond treaties and conventions, what other aspects of international relations have implications for Canada in adopting a regulatory mode in matters of drugs?

What are the approaches adopted by other countries, what are their impacts, and to what extent are they pertinent for Canada?


Fifth axis:

Ethical issues and Canadians’ moral and behavioural standards

Ethical issues and knowledge of the norms and standards adopted by Canadians are also relevant in determining policy and legislative orientations. Ethical issues arise in the practice of medicine, law, psychology, and other fields, and guiding principles may be different; it will be important to identify areas of consensus and disagreement. Further, these ethical considerations may be related to underlying perspectives on the role of the state and individual freedom; again, it will be important to disentangle these various aspects of the debate. Insofar as norms and standards of tolerance of Canadians, they may vary in time and space, and one key question is to decide whether they are determinant or whether (and how) they may be changed.

The key questions are:

What are the ethical principles relevant to examining issues related to the production, use, consumption, circulation and control of drugs?

What are the pertinent ethical principles in relation to the medical use of drugs and the medical and psychological treatment of drug addictions and dependence?

What are the current norms of behaviour of Canadians in relation to drug production, consumption, use and circulation?

What are the norms of tolerance of Canadians in relation to drug production, consumption, use, circulation and control?

To what extent do ethical principles and norms of tolerance in the population accord?


Delivering the programme of research:

Securing the cooperation of a wide gamut of persons and organizations will be key to the success of the programme of research. To achieve this, the research coordinator will be assisted by a working group and a scientific council. Also, the public hearings will be a key aspect of the information gathering process.


Transmitting the results:

Key to the work of the Special Committee will be its capacity to obtain timely and intelligible information as well as to communicate this information to Canadians. It will therefore be important to use various modes for the publication and dissemination of the Committee’s findings.

Back to top