Fifth Law Enforcement Roundtable on Drugs
September & October 2021 Meeting Summary


The opioid crisis continues unabated and is reaching unprecedented levels of harm. In 2020 alone, 6,214 Canadians lost their lives to an opioid-related overdose. This trend has continued into 2021, leading experts to predict that it will be the deadliest year on record. Illegal fentanyl remains one of the largest contributing factors, with almost all drug samples now testing positive for traces of fentanyl or its analogues. The COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to more apparent opioid toxicity deaths, as a result of the reduction in available health and social services, increased physical distancing and isolation. The crisis continues to show that drug use and overdose deaths do not discriminate, and has led to increasing calls for the decriminalization of small amounts of controlled substances for personal use (simple possession), including by some law enforcement leadership.Footnote1

The Government of Canada remains committed to addressing the opioid crisis and other emerging drug threats. To that end, Public Safety Canada (PSC) works within and outside of government to engage domestic and international partners and subject-matter experts in developing evidence-based, effective, and informed policy responses. Additionally, PSC recognizes that law enforcement is on the front lines of the opioid crisis and is therefore in a unique position to assist individuals who engage in substance use. To advance information sharing and collaboration, PSC hosted the fifth Law Enforcement Roundtable on Drugs in September and October of 2021 (agenda provided in Appendix A). This event was held virtually, featuring 20 presenters over four two-hour sessions, with approximately 150 participants per session (see Appendix B for a list of organizations represented at the event). The sessions provided a forum for members of the law enforcement community and other key stakeholders to discuss current and emerging trends in the illegal drug supply, as well as best practices. While previous Roundtables focused on a specific region within Canada, this Roundtable leveraged the virtual platform to host a pan-Canadian conversation.

Key Themes

Canada is occupying a more prominent role in the international drug market

Traditionally, illegal synthetic drugs in Canada were sourced via international importation or diverted from the pharmaceutical industry. Today, however, signs indicate that synthetic drugs are increasingly being produced on Canadian soil using imported precursor chemicals, and that surplus supply is being exported to foreign markets. Law enforcement officials believe that this concerning trend can be attributed, in part, to the increasing popularity of opioids, such as fentanyl, as well as their high profit margins (i.e. 1 kilogram of 8% pure fentanyl yields a profit of $640k to $1.6M USD), which are attractive to organized criminal groups (OCGs). The ease with which synthetic drugs can be manufactured and distributed has also played a significant role in expanding the domestic market.

Roundtable participants heard about a number of ways that Canada plays a role in the international drug market. For example, key markets for illegal drugs produced in Canada include the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. In addition, criminal entrepreneurs are exploiting Canadian ports as transhipment nodes to move products to other countries. Canadians have also coordinated the trafficking of drugs by brokering ventures from Canadian jurisdiction, but without the product transiting through or from Canada. Canadian citizens have been implicated in “shore parties”, where individuals travel internationally to “catch” a drug shipment. These individuals have also been involved in the creation of front companies, rental of storage units, as well as packaging and sale of the drugs to local buyers. Additionally, some Canadians, driven variously by threats, romance, debts or the promise of luxury goods and cash, become witting or unwitting drug mules.

The increasing involvement of OCGs in the illegal drug market was highlighted by several Roundtable panelists. Recent data suggests that over 90% of OCGs are currently involved in the illegal drug market. Many of these groups are enticed to the market due to increasing consumption rates and the profit margins associated, in particular, with dealing in synthetic drugs. For example, it was noted that Mexican cartels may be shifting to the production of fentanyl for these very reasons.

While efforts have been made to address the importation and local distribution of precursor chemicals and illegal drugs writ large, OCGs continue to adapt and work their way around prevention and enforcement measures, whether via new shipping routes, ports, or transport companies. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, OCGs have relied more heavily on marine, postal, and commercial land modes of transportation, though once flights resume between Canada and the Caribbean, border officials expect to see a return to passenger modes of drug smuggling. In light of this, panelists highlighted that pressure must be put on multiple points of the supply chain simultaneously in order to effectively disrupt it.

Use of the surface web to traffic illegal substances is an increasing concern

Law enforcement officials continue to observe a shift towards the online drug market. Both the surface and dark web are increasingly being used to traffic illegal substances, including fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. Although online sales are not expected to overtake traditional in-person transactions, experts believe that drug trafficking will continue to increase over the next several years.

On the surface web, drug traffickers exploit social media networks to reach the widest possible audiences. Participants heard that in most instances, the seller will offer to deliver the product directly to the purchaser after an exchange of telephone numbers or a few direct messages via a social media platform. To effectively disrupt such operations, law enforcement often have to leverage partnerships with social media networks who have teams dedicated to identifying harmful content. However, precise algorithms and resulting output can vary depending on resource allocation and motivation to tackle the issue. Due to the sheer number of people who frequent these platforms on a daily basis, it is virtually impossible for social media networks to monitor all user activity.

Although the dark web has a relatively smaller number of users compared to the surface web, it has been found to play a significant role in the Canadian fentanyl market. Roundtable panelists identified a number of unique challenges associated with disrupting dark web sales, such as the cloning of popular marketplaces, and fail-safe networks which maintain the contact information of different vendors so that once a particular marketplace is shut down, purchasers can still contact the vendors directly. In addition, much of the trade observed on the dark web is made possible by cryptocurrencies. Surprisingly, significant media attention garnered by police operations on the dark web may actually increase interest among certain dealers to sell illegal drugs online. As such, further consideration should be given to what information is shared with the general public.

Despite these challenges, there is evidence to suggest that law enforcement operations can be relatively successful at disrupting the online drug supply. For instance, the shutdown of illegal marketplaces on the dark web has been found to result in a loss of trust and elevated risk perceptions among purchasers, which in turn leads to lower online engagement. Likewise, research has shown that long prison sentences are particularly effective at deterring individuals who are involved in both the legal and illegal economies. Beyond traditional enforcement activities, Roundtable panelists spoke about the importance of educational and awareness initiatives, which focus on teaching social media companies about emerging drug threats and slang terms so that such information can be incorporated into their content moderation systems. Participants also noted that social media companies have been working together to share information (i.e. dangerous individuals who are using their platforms), which has proven to be helpful in preventing misuse of their platforms.

Participants also heard that Canada’s Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre (FINTRAC) receives suspicious transaction reports (STRs) from virtual currency exchangers which, when paired with the recent regulation of cryptocurrencies, may help in combatting the illegal online drug market. Arrests as a result of suspicious financial transactions similarly trigger STRs, which allows FINTRAC to investigate accomplices. Alternatively, law enforcement have the ability to submit volunteer information reports, which also trigger cases for FINTRAC investigation.

Interest in alternatives to criminal penalties for simple possession is increasing among law enforcement officials and criminal justice professionalsFootnote2

The opioid overdose crisis in Canada is increasingly being seen as a public health issue among law enforcement agencies and criminal justice professionals. As such, there has been a noted shift of focus towards alternatives to criminal penalties for simple possession of illegal substances, as well as the development of specialized police units and training, which aim to bridge the gap between law enforcement and health services.

Participants heard about several approaches to simple possession, both in Canada and the United States. For example, in Oregon, Measure 110 decriminalized “user amounts” of illegal drugs. Likewise, in Canada, the City of Vancouver has recently applied for an exemption under s. 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, which would formally decriminalize the simple possession of controlled substances within its jurisdictional boundaries. However, in the interim, the Vancouver Police Department is working within a de facto decriminalization model, where simple possession charges are rarely laid. In 2020, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada also issued a directive for prosecutors not to pursue charges in instances of simple possession unless there are extenuating circumstances.

During the Roundtable, panelists outlined a number of current and potential benefits of a decriminalization approach. Through police referrals there is the possibility for increased collaboration with healthcare providers to assist people who use substances, and to reduce the stigma associated with drug use. The potential for cost savings within the criminal justice system as a result of diverting people who use drugs away from it was also raised, as was the ability of frontline officers to continue investigating upstream drug trafficking and to address issues like public consumption.

At the same time, a number of considerations need to be carefully taken into account before alternatives to criminal penalties for simple possession are pursued. This includes ensuring that practices are evidence-based and that threshold amounts are appropriate. In this regard, Canadian law enforcement noted a preference for a “low and slow” approach to the determination of appropriate thresholds. Regardless of the approach taken, however, it is critical that any thresholds imposed have enough specificity to allow frontline officers to enforce the law. In Oregon, for example, the threshold for oxycodone specifies the number of pills, but not the pill size, making it difficult to determine what constitutes “user amounts.”

Funding was also raised as an important condition when considering alternatives to criminal penalties, given the importance of having adequate resources and infrastructure in place to support those who use substances. There must also be an appropriate balance between ensuring that law enforcement have the appropriate tools, such as the ability to seize small amounts of illegal drugs in appropriate circumstances, and minimizing the commission of risky or harmful survival activities, such as sex work or burglary, which people who use drugs may be forced to pursue when their illegal substances are seized.

Alternatives to criminal penalties, while important to consider, are only one piece of the puzzle. It is also important to fully understand and address the social determinants of health, for example, housing and employment, as well as alternatives to the illegal and increasingly toxic drug supply (i.e. safe supply). Importantly, many social determinants of health parallel the social determinants of criminality. Further, participants heard about the necessity for appropriate training for both law enforcement and criminal justice professionals to ensure that there is an accurate understanding and reduction of stigma related to those who use illegal substances.

Gaps and Opportunities

Improving data collection on and national regulations of precursor chemicals and equipment used to make illegal synthetic drugs, including new psychoactive substances

Law enforcement continue to be challenged by the illegal importation and diversion of precursor chemicals. For example, over the past year, border enforcement officials have observed a dramatic increase in precursor chemical importations. Specifically, in the first half of 2021, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) seized more than 5,000 kg of precursor chemicals, compared to only 512 kg in 2020. Most of these chemicals continue to be sourced from China or Hong Kong and trafficked through the marine mode. These chemicals remain difficult to interdict because Canada’s substance-by-substance scheduling method cannot keep pace with the advent of new molecular compounds.

Related to precursor chemicals is the growing market for used pill presses, many of which are resold domestically, as major industry actors upgrade their equipment. Research presented at the Roundtable shows that between 2016 and early 2021, at least 176 of these designated devices were seized within Canada and at the border, with British Columbia and Quebec recording the highest seizure numbers. Due to differences in federal and provincial legislation, resales are not recorded unless they cross the Alberta or British Columbia borders. As such, it is difficult to discern whether the devices are being sold for legitimate or illegal use. Legislation in both Alberta and British Columbia also builds upon the federal definition of pill presses to include punches and dies required to make counterfeit pills. It was proposed that federal legislation could be improved by following in the footsteps of these provinces. In addition, CBSA is presently considering ways to enhance their interdiction powers using authorities within the CDSA. Also identified were lessons to be learned from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which has implemented several initiatives to help determine which pill presses are destined to be used for illegal purposes.

Finally, new psychoactive substances (NPS) are posing problems for law enforcement agencies, as international producers continue to invent different types of opioids to bypass inspections. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) launched the Early Warning Advisory (EWA) in 2013 to better respond to the emergence of NPS at the global level. To date, over 1,000 NPS have been reported to the UNODC, 68 of which have been placed under international control. While the EWA has seen a levelling off of the number of individual substances reported in the last two years, the identification of new synthetic opioids continues to rise.

Collaborative efforts to better address the illegal drug supply

Working collaboratively across disciplines is necessary to enact change and ultimately reduce overdose harms. In particular, it was stressed that law enforcement, governmental agencies, and healthcare providers must work together to advance this collective objective. Several roundtable panelists discussed the different ways they are trying to bridge the gap between law enforcement and health services. For instance, the Diversion and Desistance Branch of Edmonton Police Service employs an integrated model with the help of social workers to support offenders. Similarly, the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative focuses on recovery-oriented policing to create law enforcement and public health partnerships, which have been found to be particularly valuable in the context of alternatives to criminal penalties for simple possession. Additionally, research on Drug Treatment Courts has shown that properly structured partnerships between the police, the criminal justice system, and healthcare professionals can be effective at addressing substance use.

Roundtable participants also heard about a number of successful partnerships between law enforcement agencies, including the work between the RCMP and the DEA to share drug samples in an effort to identify source countries. Likewise, Northern communities often work with the Ontario Provincial Police to conduct joint drug investigations. There are, however, further opportunities for collaboration between domestic and international law enforcement, and as well as domestic and international government departments to prevent new and harmful substances from entering the country. For example, the United States, Mexico, and Canada work together within the North American Drug Dialogue (NADD) to identify global drug trends, share intelligence, and discuss how to address issues occurring in one country that have the potential to affect others. As such, the NADD is one possible forum that could be leveraged for additional engagement with other countries of interest.

Topics for Future Discussion

Potential for technological disruption

Law enforcement officials who took part in the Roundtable reported that modern technology has made it significantly more difficult to disrupt the illegal drug supply. In fact, law enforcement agencies are reportedly 15 to 20 years behind the technological curve, particularly in Northern communities.  Encrypted devices and communications were said to be particularly problematic, as they often hinder law enforcement’s ability to investigate organized crime groups involved in drug trafficking. Further, OCGs are exploiting other technological innovations, such as drones and autonomous tools, to traffic illegal substances. Given the worsening state of the opioid crisis, interest was expressed in exploring ways to disrupt the technological tools being used by OCGs to communicate and move their product. Some of the potential solutions raised for future consideration included appropriate court orders and decryption programs or software.

Drug interdiction in Northern/remote communities

Northern communities face unique challenges, including unprotected borders and large areas for surveillance, making it easier to traffic drugs. In addition, many of these communities are inaccessible by car for many months of the year. This requires the employment of helicopters, thus limiting law enforcement’s ability to detect and arrest those involved in the illegal drug trade. Another issue raised was the lack of trust these communities often have of law enforcement. For this reason, it is not uncommon for these tightknit communities not to cooperate during investigations. Compounding these problems is a lack of resources, staffing, and training available in remote communities to help law enforcement combat the opioid crisis.

Exploitation of the postal service to traffic illegal substances

The trafficking of illegal substances through the postal system continues to be an issue of concern. OCGs often use the postal mode because it allows for high profitability with relatively low risk and effort. This has created significant problems for Northern communities in particular, where postal shipments have become the most common method of distribution for illegal substances. Many panelists spoke of the need for a review of domestic mail and courier systems, given law enforcement’s limited ability to interdict drugs under the current framework. Emphasis was also placed on finding better ways to interdict fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, which are primarily transported in small packages making them difficult to detect.

Appendix A: Agenda – Fifth Law Enforcement Roundtable on Drugs

Trends in the Illegal Drug Supply

Initial disruptions to the supply chain in light of COVID-19 restrictions appear to have dissipated, both in Canada and globally. At the same time, online sales and courier and mail delivery of illegal substances have increased and the drug supply is becoming increasingly toxic. This session discussed current and emerging domestic and international illegal drug market supply trends. Presentations focused on how these trends affect Canada and lessons learned.


Best Enforcement Practices to Disrupt Illegal Drug Markets

Domestic seizures of illegal substances are increasing in volume, despite increased border restrictions as a result of COVID-19, suggesting that domestic production of illegal substances is on the rise. This session examined current promising models to disrupt drug trafficking, particularly organized crime group activity in the illegal drug supply chain. Participants reviewed what practices work and where there is room for improvement.


Implications for Law Enforcement of Alternatives to Criminal Penalties for Simple Possession

There are increasing calls from voices across Canada, including law enforcement and lawmakers, to review alternatives to criminal penalties for simple possession of illegal drugs. This session explored a range of alternatives to criminal penalties relevant to the Canadian context, with a specific focus on how these approaches impact law enforcement and public safety.


Looking Ahead: The Future of Illegal Drug Supply Reduction in Canada

A dialogue about the anticipated challenges, gaps and opportunities for innovation in responding to the illegal drug market over the next three to five years, and discussion of what is on the drug supply horizon.


Appendix B: Organizations represented at the Roundtable


  1. 1

    Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. (2020) Decriminalization for Simple Possession of Illicit Drugs: Exploring Impacts on Public Safety & Policing.Accessed: November 25, 2021.

  2. 2

    While all panelists agreed that change is necessary to address the opioid crisis, there was no consensus on disrupting the illegal supply chain as a best practice.

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