OTTAWA - Almost three quarters of all cases handled by federal prosecutors last year involved drugs, according to the annual report from the Public Prosecution Service of Canada.
The service, responsible for pursuing everything from health, safety and environmental infractions to economic fraud and terrorism, said Wednesday it handled 58,117 drug files — 72 per cent of its total caseload in 2010-11.
In the second-largest category after drug crime, there were fewer than 10,000 prosecutions for breaches involving health, safety, economic and environmental regulations.
The annual report says there were just three prosecutions under anti-terrorism provisions in the Criminal Code, two of which are still before the courts; and two war crimes prosecutions.
"We don't control our workload. We're not an investigative agency," said Dan Brien, a spokesman for the Office of the Public Prosecutor.
"We prosecute where charges are laid."
The figures represent a complex jurisdictional mix. The public prosecution service handles drug infractions in all provinces and territories, with the exception of Quebec and New Brunswick where it only pursues RCMP-laid drug charges.
Most Criminal Code violations, including murder, are handled by provincial prosecutors — although the federal service handles all such cases in the territories.
Still, the preponderance of drug prosecutions by an agency that pursues violations under everything from the Fisheries Act to the Income Tax Act and fraud on capital markets has some critics questioning the direction and focus of Canada's criminal justice system.
"I think things are seriously out of whack," Bob Rae, the interim Liberal party leader, said in an interview.
"We're ineffective at dealing with white collar crime, we're ineffective at dealing with other issues. And what the Conservatives are doing in this current legislation is taking us further and further down a path that clearly hasn't worked."
The report comes a day after the Conservative government introduced a sweeping omnibus crime bill that will add new drug offences, including tough new minimum sentences for people convicted of growing six pot plants or more.
A spokeswoman for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said the new legislation takes "aim at serious drug offences that involve organized crime, violence, or the targeting of youth."
"Drug producers and dealers who threaten the safety of our communities must face tougher penalties," Pamela Stephens said in an email. "Our message is clear: if you sell or produce drugs, you’ll pay with jail time."
Rae called the war on drugs "an absolute, catastrophic failure."
Canadians, the Liberal leader said Wednesday, need to start looking critically and dispassionately at the issue.
"I'm just saying in my time here as I fight this legislation, I want Canadians to begin to think and ask themselves a simple question: Has the approach worked so far? The answer is no," said Rae.
"Has it reduced rates of addiction? No. In fact, we have higher rates of addiction than many countries. Are there other countries which are experimenting with better approaches? Yes, there are."
Federal prosecutors, the report says, opened almost 34,000 new drug files last year — 70 per cent of all new cases — while another 24,245 drug files were carried over from the previous year.
"These prosecutions vary greatly in complexity," said the report. "Some are simple cases of possession of a few grams of marihuana (sic), while others involve complex schemes to import quantities of cocaine or to make methamphetamine in suburban neighbourhoods for export."
The report says "high complexity" cases comprised just over two per cent of the drug caseload but ate up more than a third of all litigation time.
A total of $35.6 million was forfeited to the federal government under proceeds of crime legislation, the majority of which came from "revenue-generating" drug crimes, said the report.
Fines and surcharges under federal regulatory and economic offences totalled $22 million last year.