Police drug seizures

The goal of the police drug seizures component of the BC alcohol and other drug monitoring project is to provide indicators of emerging or changing patterns in substances seized by law enforcement agencies across BC. This project was a collaborationg between CARBC and Health Canada that was active between 2008 and 2010.

Key findings from this component can be found in facts & stats/police drug seizures.

Data sources & caveats

The data on which this update is based comes from two different databases, the Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) and the Controlled Drug and Substances Database (CDSD). Seized drug data from Health Canada provides a comprehensive picture of drug seizures by all law enforcement agencies across Canada and exhibits analysed from these seizures. These data can provide regional, provincial and national estimates of the types of drugs seized, quantity of drug seized, the date and location of the seizure, and other important contextual information regarding the seizure.

Examining forensic laboratory data that contains drug seizure information from police and Canada Border Services Agency officers is one window into the illicit drug market in Canada. Although both the LIMS and CDSD database systems provide complementary data, they do differ in their purpose and what they can tell us. The LIMS provides the results of chemical analyses for exhibits submitted to DAS when verification of the actual substances is required for court or other purposes. Not all seizures require this analysis. The CDSD data provide information on seizures by law enforcement agencies as recorded when permission is being sought for destruction of the drugs, typically once they are no longer required for court proceedings. These data include quantity seized of the suspected controlled substance (based on police report and not the chemical analyses). The results from each of these systems can provide indicators of emerging or changing patterns in substances seized across Canada. They can also be interpreted alongside data on patterns of substance use and related harms collected in other project components.

Drug enforcement activities may vary with the extent, focus and effectiveness of interception/detection activities by police and Canada Border Services Agency which in turn has an impact on the number of exhibits analysed by Health Canada’s Drug Analysis Service (DAS). As a result, exhibits analysed by DAS may not necessarily represent a one-to-one correspondence with the number of police seizures.

Methodology

Health Canada's Drug Analysis Service (DAS) is responsible for testing suspected controlled substances that are seized by Canadian police officers and Canada Border Services Agency agents. Exhibits are submitted when verification of the actual substances is required for court or other purposes only, and not for all seizures. For each exhibit, the test results are entered into the Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) which captures information such as the substance found in the exhibit and any other adulterants if analyzed, and police detachment or Canada Border Services Agency office location. Drug enforcement activities are affected by the extent, focus and effectiveness of interception and detection activities by police and Canada Border Services Agency. These activities along with criminal charges and associated pleas have an impact on the illicit drug exhibit data stored in the LIMS database. For example, a targeted crackdown on methamphetamine will increase the number of arrests and if exhibits from the seizure are analyzed there will be an increase in exhibits in the LIMS, but this does not necessarily indicate an increased presence or use of that drug on the streets. Conversely, any activity which changes the Police’s priority in drug enforcement, i.e., 2010 Olympics and lead-up security preparations, will affect submission levels.

Under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, Health Canada is responsible for authorizing the destruction of all controlled substances seized in Canada. As part of the request to destroy the seized controlled substances, law enforcement detachments provide information on the suspected drug seized, the offence, information on the defendant, and the disposition of the charges to Health Canada where it is entered into in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Database (CDSD). Typically, the request for destruction occurs once the substances are no longer required as evidence in court proceedings. The lag time between drugs being seized and the submission of the request for destruction means that the CDSD data are less current than the data entered into LIMS but are more detailed. While primarily developed for administrative purposes, these two systems – LIMS and CDSD – also have a significant strategic value, helping to identify and track emerging trends in illicit drug(s) availability in Canada.

Data sources

Drug Analysis Service (DAS) - Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS)

DAS conducts chemical analyses of suspected illicit substances when verification of the actual substances is required for court or other purposes. Results of these analyses are maintained in a computerized database (LIMS) from 1988 to the present which contains approximately 1.9 million records. The data stored in the LIMS database does not represent the total number of illicit drug seizures, since it only tracks exhibits that have been submitted for analysis. For a particular drug seizure, multiple exhibits, one exhibit, or no exhibits could be submitted to the Drug Analysis Service. Additional research is required to determine the extent to which the trends in drug seizure data differ from actual trends in illicit drug availability in the province as exhibit data analyzed by DAS and stored in LIMS are affected by the extent, focus and effectiveness of interception and detection activities by police and border services. It is only possible to report on exhibits submitted to DAS for analysis, which does not necessarily represent a one-to-one correspondence with the number of police seizures. Currently, the amounts of drugs seized are not available in LIMS.

Office of Controlled Substances (OCS) - Controlled Drugs and Substances Database (CDSD)

Whenever a police or customs officer seizes a suspected controlled substance in Canada, the information is collected on a form (paper or electronic) known as the Drug Offence and Disposition form (HC 3515). This form is used for the logging in, tracking, and requesting permission to destroy the controlled substance and contains information on the drug seized (record of what the police or Canada Border Services Agency officers suspect was seized), the offence, information on the defendant, and the disposition of the charges. Upon completion of the case, the HC 3515 form is sent to Health Canada to request permission to destroy the controlled substance(s) seized. There is a significant lag time between the date when the substance was seized to the time it is entered into the CDSD database, since the data contained on the form is only entered into the CDSD when permission to destroy is requested, which may in fact be many months or even years after the actual seizure, depending on how long the related court processes take. However, it can serve as a complementary source of information on drug seizures in Canada since, among other information; it identifies the amount of suspected controlled substances seized in each case.

Data indicators

The LIMS database contains over 900 chemical substances, controlled and not controlled. The CDSD database contains more than 290 controlled substances which are represented by over 800 entries using chemical, generic and brand names. Given that the numbers of different substances within each database is quite large, the focus will be on the most prevalent substances as these are expected to have the most impact on society. The most common substances are: cannabis (marijuana, cannabis resin, and hash oil/cannabis resin (liquid), cocaine/crack cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, ecstasy, psilocybin (more commonly known as ‘magic mushrooms’ in its plant form), and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).

Through examinations of the exhibits analyzed by DAS, we are able to explore the prevalence of substances seized while recognizing that these represent only instances where exhibits have been submitted and not all seizures. Both the LIMS and CDSD datasets provide reasonable estimates on the number of illicit drugs seizures across Canada and trend analyses are computed for Canada, each province, and regional districts within each province. By exploring the changing prevalence in drugs seizures over time, an indication of the illicit drug market can be derived.

Additives

Another important result that can be captured is the presence of drug adulterations observed in exhibits. Exhibits that are analyzed by DAS often contain multiple substances. Although the system does not identify the percentage of each substance within each exhibit, having indications that exhibits contain more than one substance provides strategic information regarding the illicit drug market. These contaminants can also be tracked over time and by location in order to determine if patterns are emerging or changing. Drug adulterations have important implications from a health promotion perspective, from a drug user perspective, and also from a law enforcement perspective.

Temporal and geographic information

All analyses were conducted for seizures that were made in the province of British Columbia, with comparisons to national figures when appropriate and possible. Furthermore, regional comparisons are examined when available. Data extracted from LIMS to date covers the period from January 1, 1997 to December 31, 2010, while data from the CDSD database will cover the period from January 1, 1997 to December 31, 2008. Data from the CDSD for 2009 and 2010 would not be complete and likely be an underestimation due to the lag in time from when the seizure is made to when the information is entered into the database. As a result, these years were not included for analyses using CDSD data.

Team

Judy Snider, M.Sc.
Manager of Drugs and Alcohol Surveillance, Office of Research and Surveillance,
Controlled Substances and Tobacco Directorate, Healthy Environments and Consumer Safety Branch, Health Canada.

Laura Petts
Acting Senior Research Analyst, Office of Research and Surveillance,
Controlled Substances and Tobacco Directorate, Healthy Environments and Consumer Safety Branch, Health Canada.