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Marijuana Prohibition Caught Hold

for Neither Rhyme nor Reason


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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 sativa?"

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 Commission ).

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 criminal offence.

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 abundantly clear.

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 enforcement.

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.


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