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How Will We Crack the Ice and Smack the Chronic, Sugar and Coke? The Control of Illicit Drugs in Canada

By David Kilgour, M.P. Edmonton Southeast
Published in Canadian Social Studies, Winter 1997, Vol. 31, No. 2

In 1992, six days after the Chinese police arrested dozens of her accomplices, Ms. Lee Chau-ping, the most infamous female drug trafficker in the world, moved to Canada. She had promised Immigration Canada officials that she was going to open a new fast-food franchise in northern Saskatchewan, and by the time she moved here she had already sunk several thousand dollars into the first restaurant. The Chinese police knew Ms. Lee had escaped to Canada. When the Chinese Ministry of Public Securities requested that the "Ice Queen" be detained, the RCMP responded by starting its own investigation. In China, Ms. Lee had successfully founded and managed several factories where she produced a special crystalline form of speed referred to as "Ice." Shortly after entering Canada she moved to Vancouver, where she lived and worked until she escaped during the course of the RCMP's proceeds-of-crime investigation. Is the story of Ms. Lee indicative of Canada's inability to prevent the transportation and sale of illicit drugs in Canada?

In 1992, the United Nations Human Development Report named Canada as the industrialized country with the highest number of illegal drug crimes per capita. In 1994, the RCMP claimed that courier services and the postal service in Canada were increasingly being used to import illegal drugs into Canada. Canada is arguably vulnerable: its expansive geography, endless, uninhabited coastlines, relatively small population, and its long border shared with the United States make it an ideal intermediary port between international drug sources and the drug market of the United States. Between 1990 and 1991 the number of seizures of heroin destined for the U.S. doubled. Also, Canada provides a hospitable environment for money laundering. SportSelect, the professional sports lottery, was recently exposed as a possible source of money laundering in this country.

Six years ago The New York Times described Canada as "one of the world's leading havens for concealing illegal narcotics profits." However, besides increasingly supporting the growing drug market of the U.S. and providing a haven for money laundering, Canada is supporting a rapidly increasing drug market within its own borders.

Heroin as a Case Example

According to a March 26, 1995 article from The Edmonton Journal, "heroin is creating a horrific epidemic in Vancouver." Of particular concern is the increase in heroin use. Heroin is the most dangerous and powerful illicit drug in Canada. In 1993, the RCMP estimated that there were between 25,000 and 35,000 heroin addicts in the metropolitan areas of Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. Two years later a Globe and Mail article stated that there had been an extraordinary increase in the number of heroin users in Metropolitan Toronto since 1993. Police claimed that the number of seizures of heroin in Toronto doubled and the amount seized quadrupled from 1992 to 1995.

On August 5, 1995, Patricia Marbeck and her husband snorted three bags of heroin. They had two children, a golden retriever, and, in the eyes of society and many of their friends and neighbours, a healthy and normal lifestyle. It is not just the "druggies" or rock stars who are using heroin today, but lawyers, bankers, stockbrokers, young urban professionals, university, and college students, computer programmers, screen writers, and accountants. Some of them are addicts and some claim they just get high in social settings or at parties on the weekend. Nonetheless, they are supporting the drug markets of Canada. In fact, a recent study of 5,000 people by researchers at Sheffield University in Britain found that high-income earners from the middle and upper classes have become the largest users of illegal drugs in Britain. And worldwide the drug dealers themselves are now businessmen, not addicts.

Policy Options

In 1987, Canada introduced its "National Drug Strategy -- Action on Drug Abuse." It was a five-year program with a budget of 210 million dollars, 70 percent of which was allotted for demand-side reduction and the balance to supply-side reduction. The strategy was renewed for another five years in 1992 with a budget of 270 million dollars. The demand side reduction allotment was reduced to 60 percent with the supply-side increased to 40 percent. The United States, which is known for supply-side actions like spraying the fields of drug crops in developing countries, spends 60 percent of funding for its "War on Drugs" on supply-side reduction, the opposite of Canada.

Ed Hoey, a Staff Inspector from Toronto who supervises the city's major anti-drug squads, estimates that "at least 85 percent, perhaps higher," of break-and-enter offences and robberies are drug-motivated. According to a study released by the Fraser Institute in 1996, Canada has a high rate of property crime compared to other countries. Therefore, the concern for reducing drug related crimes is valid; however, in other countries attempts to legalize drugs have proven disastrous. In Spain, during the mid-80s, drug laws were softened, only to be strengthened in full force after Spain experienced a steep increase in drug abuse and became a major transshipment destination. Also, when Switzerland legalized drugs in 1987 there was a 30 percent increase in crime in major cities. Legalization is definitely not the answer.

Demand-Side Reduction

Furthermore, in the words of Chuck Doucette, the RCMP's British Columbia provincial drug-awareness coordinator, "We can only scratch the surface of the [heroin] supply." The highly organized drug cartels of Asia and South America are almost impossible to touch.

Rehabilitation programs can be an extremely important and successful source of prevention programs. Harvest House, located just outside of Ottawa, is a rehabilitation centre where successfully recovering addicts take part in extensive fund-raising and prevention programs. These men and women who were once on the streets are now telling high school students what drugs did to their lives. Harvest House receives only half of its funding from the government; it fund-raises the rest. It is definitely a worthwhile investment, considering Canadians save money by not paying for these criminals to be jailed (in 1990 the cost of housing, feeding, and rehabilitating a Canadian convict cost $40,000 a year), while receiving the societal benefits of recovered drug addicts and a successful drug-prevention program. In addition, many of the recovered addicts of Harvest House begin a college education during their recovery program and eventually become addiction counsellors.

In other words, the small amount of money that the Canadian government contributes towards this rehabilitation program ends up paying for itself in the benefits that result. If these men and women were in jail instead of a rehabilitation centre, they would resort to drug use immediately after being released, as the men from Harvest House will tell you they did.

Fred Christopher, who just recently successfully completed Harvest House's one-year program, had been incarcerated for 13 months, only to be arrested 15 days after his release. Now he is employed by Harvest House to raise funds and to speak to students about drugs. Christopher says he would have been dead before he was 40 if it were not for Harvest House. Moreover, he says that his 13 months in jail only taught him how to steal better.

Supply-Side Reduction

Demand-side reduction alone will not solve Canada's drug problem. Education in schools and rehabilitation programs are important, but what about the stockbrokers, PhD students, professionals -- the middle or upper-class drug users and future addicts? In addition to prevention through demand side reduction, the source of the problem must be restricted. This does not necessarily mean confiscating large shipments of drugs, for this will only increase the street price and encourage more drug dealing in Canada. Rather, drug production and drug trafficking must be stopped.

Sentencing for drug trafficking and lab operation in Canada is not severe enough. Tougher American legislation and zero tolerance seems to be influencing lab operators, who now choose Canada as a safe haven for purchasing precursor chemicals and for producing finished products. Canadian legislation is not strong enough. Drug traffickers consider short jail terms as just part of the business, and traffickers from other countries seek business in Canada because of the leniency of the system. However, Canada cannot afford merely to imprison an increasing number of traffickers. We must threaten the upper echelons of the dealer networks with more severe sentences while increasing rehabilitation programs for ordinary drug users.


Probably every Canadian can name someone they know who is supporting, or was at one time supporting, the drug market. Social scientists have observed that legal measures are not as powerful in deterring drug consumption as social pressure and the fear of health consequences. Social disapproval, positive role models, and effective use of the communications media could all play a stronger part in eliminating illicit drug use in Canada. For example, when the famous skier, Steve Podborski, shunned a skiing event sponsored by a tobacco company, some said he did more to fight drug addiction in Canada than the Canadian drug-enforcement establishment. Moreover, all parents, all families, all communities, all Canadians, must take part. As well as increasing our demand and supply efforts as a country, as individuals we must support and positively influence those around us because drugs are becoming an increasingly serious problem in Canada. In fact, they are threatening our way of life.

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