Source: Vancouver Sun (CN BC)
Published: Tuesday, March 08, 2005
Copyright: 2005 Vancouver Sun
Contact: [email protected]
Since the murder of four RCMP officers in Alberta last Thursday, some
people are urging the federal government to scrap its marijuana reform
legislation, which would decriminalize possession of small amounts of
the substance and increase the maximum penalty for growing it.
The feds should ignore these calls. Indeed, Ottawa might even have to
consider legalization of marijuana if it's to stop organized crime from
profiting and to minimize the violence this activity unleashes.
Beginning today, our four-part editorial series will explore the history
of cannabis prohibition, its consequences and what kind of legal
framework we should adopt.
First Of Four
In 1923, at a meeting of the parliamentary committee charged with
reviewing Canada's Opium and Narcotic Drug Act, Minister of Health
Henri-Severin Beland announced: "There is a new drug in the schedule."
The drug was cannabis sativa -- marijuana -- a narcotic that was almost
unknown in Canada at the time. The inclusion of marijuana in the list of
banned drugs came as a surprise to many parliamentarians, including
member of Parliament Ernest Lapointe, who asked "What is cannabis
Lapointe could easily have added: "Why has it been added to the list of
prohibited substances?," since, to this day, no one knows why marijuana
was banned. Parliamentarians had no evidence that marijuana caused any
physical, psychological or social harm.
Nevertheless, the legislation was passed without debate, which isn't
surprising since parliamentarians could hardly have engaged in debate
concerning a substance about which they knew nothing.
While marijuana continued to be a non-problem -- by the mid-20th
century, little more than two dozen people had been charged with
possession -- Parliament, perhaps influenced by the drug hysteria in the
United States which warned people that marijuana turns people into
ax-murderers, instituted ever greater measures against the "demon" drug.
Those charged with certain drug offences found themselves facing reverse
onus clauses, essentially requiring them to prove their innocence, and
those convicted of importing marijuana were subject to a minimum of
seven years imprisonment. ( This latter provision was later struck down
by the Supreme Court of Canada as cruel and unusual punishment. )
Finally, in 1969, the government of Pierre Trudeau decided it was time
to take a hard look at marijuana and other drugs, and established the
Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs ( the LeDain
In 1973, the commission issued its report, noting that marijuana was
criminalized "without any apparent scientific basis nor any real sense
of social urgency." The majority opinion of the commission recommended
repealing the prohibition of possession of marijuana and the prohibition
of cultivation for personal use.
Although the LeDain Commission was praised the world over for its
thoroughness and thoughtfulness, its recommendations were largely
ignored by the Trudeau government. Possession of marijuana remains a
That situation might finally change with Bill C-38, the federal
government's plan to decriminalize possession of small amounts of
marijuana. But while not a criminal offence, possession of marijuana
will remain illegal, and maximum penalties for cultivating marijuana
will actually increase.
As such, the bill is not much of a departure from previous legislation,
in that it reflects the mentality that has dominated our thinking on
marijuana for the past 75 years. While it's not easy to decipher what
that mentality is, since, shockingly, Canada has no national drug
strategy ( and hasn't had one for more than a decade ), a few things are
For the past 75 years, Canadian public policy has been informed by
prohibitionism: the desire to prevent, and to stop, people from using
illicit substances. To that end, we have criminalized the possession,
trafficking, cultivation and manufacture of such substances. Although
governments have given a nod to education and prevention initiatives,
the overwhelming bulk of our resources have been spent on law
As such, to assess whether our initiatives have been successful in
preventing and stopping people from using drugs, we need only consider
whether our increasingly draconian laws have reduced the supply of, and
demand for, illegal drugs.
Judged by that criterion, we will see tomorrow that the legal
prohibition of marijuana has been one of the most spectacular failures
of the 20th century.