Drug legislation in Canada is complex with four main pieces of legislation governing drug offences and processes.
Most of us educated in the Canadian public school system have been told to say no to drugs. It is a slogan often stuck on the back of bathroom stall doors in bright coloured posters. Or the theme of Mr.-Intimidating-Police-Officer who comes to your Grade 5 class to give you a talk on how to be safe on the sidewalk.
But the reality is, drug use (and the underlying causes of it) is an extremely complicated issue. Who uses it, why and where are as complicated to understand and rectify as a Rubik’s cube with ever-changing sticker colours. The legislation in this area is also arguably not sound, nor is it singular.
The Crown attorney’s office that prosecutes drug offences is separate from those prosecuting other criminal offences. The legislations for drug offences are separate and complex. The police powers to search differ among the context, legislation, and offences under investigation. Deciphering when and how and under what law you can be investigated, searched, or charged can be a complicated legal analysis that you may only understand after the fact.
So, what drug laws govern us in Canada? The four main pieces of legislation are described below.
Controlled Drugs and Substances Act
The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) is the main drug legislation policing the possession, sale, importation and trafficking of drugs in Canada. The CDSA deems what drugs are illegal and what offences are criminal. Under the CDSA, police can arrest you and apply for a search warrant to investigate any drug offences. And accused can be charged under the CDSA in our criminal justice system the same way an accused is charged with an offence under Canada’s Criminal Code.
A separate prosecution team, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, prosecutes offences under the CDSA. Say for example you are charged with an offence under the Criminal Code such as assault and with possessing a large amount of drugs in your car at the time of the assault. In this case, two separate prosecutors would prosecute you for those offences (unless other arrangements are made), even though you face one trial for both offences.
The Cannabis Act is the newest drug legislation in Canada. Parliament introduced this legislation to regulate the use, possession and consumption of marijuana after a large societal push called for the decriminalization of marijuana nationally.
The Customs Act provides border officers with the power to search travellers when they have reasonable and probable grounds to suspect something may contain or house prohibited, controlled or regulated goods. It is a long-standing legal fact that anyone crossing Canadian borders has reduced privacy.
Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act
The Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act legally protects persons who overdose, or those on the scene of an overdose, from new or further charges. Parliament designed this legislation to encourage individuals to call for emergency services without fear of legal repercussion.
All Together Now
This legislation can all intertwine in a drug prosecution. For example, if you are crossing the border, Canadian border agents or police could search your vehicle using their authority under the Customs Act or the Cannabis Act. If they find drugs, they can charge you criminally under the CDSA, and ticket you with violating the Customs Act.
With the legalization of marijuana, provinces have also created their own local legislation. For example, Ontario’s Cannabis Control Act gives police the power to search a motor vehicle or boat without a warrant if they have reason to believe marijuana will be found within it. If the search yields cannabis, the individual can then be charged under the CDSA or other legislation.
Just like drug use, the legal matrix of drug regulation is a complicated area of the law. When in doubt, call your local criminal lawyer— especially if you cannot say no to drugs.
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The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LawNow or the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta.
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