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Report of the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs: Cannabis

Chapter 10

Canadians' Opinions and Attitudes


At the start of the century, the media played a key role in creating a moral "panic" over illegal drugs. First it was the "Yellow Peril" and the opium crisis in the early 20th century, primarily in Vancouver. (1)

[...] tolerance for the habit of smoking opium lasted only as long as British Columbia's tolerance for the Chinese. In the early years of the twentieth century, both a labour surplus and anti-Asian resentment developed [...] If you look at the Vancouver Province, virtually any front page in the first five years of the 20th century, there are racist cartoons warning about the yellow peril, about how British Columbia is going to be swallowed up by the Chinese, and about another boatload arriving. (2)

The following appeared in Canadian Magazine in 1900:

It was quite evident he (the Chinese servant) had had his share and a night of it, for there are Chinese dens in Vancouver where opium is smoked and unspeakable infamies are practised, and no matter how meek and mild your Chinaman may look, no matter how gentle his voice or confiding his manner, Saturday night is almost certain to find him 'doped' in his bunk, weaving dreams under the poppy's subtle spell. (3)

Then it was the cocaine plague in Montreal as described by the following article in the Montreal Witness in 1910:

This curse of cocaine [...] has existed for a short time in the city. It is a real evil. It is a social plague, and it goes on spreading so fearfully that it is time for society to take marked notice. Alcoholism and morphia are nothing to cocaine. It is the agent for the seduction of our daughters and the demoralization of our young men. [...] Those who know what cocaine is and what its evils are, are those who can hurt society most. (4)

This vision of the decay and degeneration of the working class and, more broadly, Anglo-British and Christian civilization, would subsequently be picked up by temperance movements. A key figure in women's history in Canada, Emily Murphy, would play a leading role in the 1920s in articulating this apocalyptic vision. Murphy, a writer and journalist, was president of the Canadian Women's Press Club (1913-1920), the founding president of the Federated Women's Institute and a member of the National Council of Women of Canada before becoming a judge in Alberta. She also fought to have women's rights recognized in the Canadian constitution. She was a tireless fighter in the war on drugs. In a series of articles published in MacLean's magazine in 1920, she attacked the "plague" of drugs.

[...] whatever form these drugs are taken, they degrade the morals and enfeeble the will. No matter what their status has been, inveterate users of drugs become degraded. All are liars: nearly all become dishonest. Being deprived of the drug, they will go any length to get it, even to thievery and prostitution. While sober they are uncomfortable, and prolonged abstemiousness hurts them like nails driven into the flesh. (5)

In 1922, in her book The Black Candle, she also attacked marijuana, which she described as follows:

Persons using this narcotic smoke the dried leaves of the plant, which has the effect of driving them completely insane. The addict loses all sense of moral responsibility. Addicts to this drug, while under its influence, are immune to pain, and could severely injured without having any realization of their condition. While in this condition they become raving maniacs and liable to kill or indulge in any form of violence to other persons, using the most savage methods of cruelty without, as said before, any sense of moral responsibility. When coming under the influence of this narcotic, these victims present the most horrible condition imaginable. They are dispossessed of their natural and normal will power and their mental is that of idiots. If the drug is indulged in any great extent, it ends in the untimely death of the addict. (6)

Beyond the verbal impact of these articles and racism toward Asians, there is some similarity between the messages being conveyed at that time and some contemporary messages about drugs: drugs attack the moral roots of society, the family in particular. They put young people at risk and cause crime and violence. Dealers are everywhere, especially around schools, ready to do whatever it takes to expand their client base. And drugs, by definition, lead to drug addiction.

That does not mean, of course, that the newspaper articles were the main reason why drugs were criminalized. Nor does it mean that people ultimately believed what was written. Still, analysts of the evolution of drug laws in Canada agree that the media played an important role in shaping Canadian drug legislation.

Where do Canadian media stand on drugs today? We did not analyse all the press coverage of drugs in Canada, although the exercise would probably have been interesting in sociological terms in identifying key notions and seeing just how public opinion is shaped. All we do here is examine two main types of media article. The first is news related to criminality, the second, feature stories and editorials.

News stories on illegal drugs usually focus on police operations: raids, seizures, dealer arrests and dismantling of organized crime rings. The best-known modern example was surely the 2001 arrest in Quebec of more than 70 Hells Angels members known to be involved in narcotics trafficking and other illegal activities. And then there are seizures, month after month, of kilograms ≠ even hundreds of kilograms ≠ of drugs, more and more often marijuana.

We do not know how this information helps shape public opinion on drugs or what impact it has on the public's demands concerning drugs. However, these articles probably give people the impression that the "drug problem" is first and foremost an organized crime problem. But while there may have been an impression until the mid 1980s, shall we say, that marijuana was a problem exported into Canada from other countries, the growing number of articles on raids of domestic producers ≠ as opposed to shipments from overseas ≠ is giving more and more people cause to think of marijuana as a home-grown problem.

Other news stories focus on the relationship between drugs and crime, especially prostitution, residential break-ins, and "incivilities" experienced by street youth and the homeless. Some of these activities are at least in part associated with drugs. For prostitution, it is the fact that people, mostly women, are forced to work as street prostitutes in order to support their habit. Residential break-ins are also tied to supporting drug habits, although the perpetrators are different: most break-ins are committed by young men. For street youth, the main problem is intravenous drug use and the risk of spreading AIDS. None of this is directly related to marijuana. Except for schools. Virtually every big city in Canada ≠ and every not-so-big city, too, for that matter ≠ has seen some kind of police operation in schools. School raids usually elicit two types of reaction, both rooted in indignation: people are indignant when they learn that drugs are so much a part of the school environment while others think the police are abusing their authority and failing to respect young people's rights.

Several years ago, there were a number of feature reports in newspapers and the electronic media. The series written by journalist Dan Gardner of the Ottawa Citizen in 2000, which was picked up by most of the newspapers in the Southam chain, is surely the best-known example. In his 10-article series, Gardner explained why the "war on drugs" is a patent failure. He began his series as follows:

Uncle Sam's global campaign to end drug abuse has empowered criminals, corrupted governments and eroded liberty, but still there are more drug addicts than ever before. On June 6, 1998, a surprising letter was delivered to Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations. 'We believe' the letter declared, 'that the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself. The letter was signed by statesmen, politicians, academics and other public figures. Former UN secretary general Javier Perez de Cuellar signed. So did George Shultz, the former American secretary of state, and Joycelyn Elders, the former American Surgeon General. Nobel laureates such as Milton Friedman and Argentina's Adolfo Perez Esquivel added their names. Four former presidents and seven former cabinet ministers from Latin American countries signed. And several eminent Canadians were among the signatories. The drug policies the world has been following for decades are a destructive failure they said. Trying to stamp out drug abuse by banning drugs has only created an illegal industry worth $400 billion US. Ćor roughly eight per cent of international trade.' [...] This powerful statement landed on Mr. Annan's desk just as the United Nations was holding a special assembly on global drug problems. Going into that meeting, the governments of the world appeared all but unanimous in the belief that the best way to combat drug abuse was to ban the production, sale or possession of certain drugs. [...] Still, the letter to Mr. Annan showed that this view is far from unanimous. In fact, a large and growing number of world leaders and experts think the war on drugs is nothing less than a humanitarian disaster. (7)

In a way, Gardner's series echoed editorials that ran in the Ottawa Citizen in 1997 calling for the decriminalization of drugs.(8) The following appeared in the second article in the series: "The recent history of drug enforcement, in both Canada and the United States, is largely a record of failure. Tax dollars are lavished on enforcement. Police powers are expanded at the expense of civil liberties. Criminal gangs grow richer. And drug use goes on regardless." In 1998, the Toronto Globe and Mail expressed a similar view under the headline "What are G8 Leaders Smoking?" The newspaper wrote, "Prohibition does not work and cannot work, and its costs are higher than those of a policy of properly supervised and regulated access to drugs. Given that the elimination of drugs from our society is not an option, the G8 leaders should have been asking themselves how they can minimize the harm that drugs represent. As it is, their policies maximize the damage." The Globe and Mail did the same thing in a two-part editorial in July 2001, recommending decriminalization of marijuana. The Vancouver Sun followed suit in October 1998, and the National Post also called for an end to the prohibition on marijuana. More recently still, in the wake of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the Citizen editorial staff responded to those who suggested that money from drug trafficking was being used to finance terrorism. The editorial read:

The latest drug-war scare, from Solicitor General Lawrence MacAulay and others, is that terrorists may be using drug money to finance their evil deeds. If so, you can see why. Terrorism, like any real crime, produces victims rather than satisfied customers, so it's not exactly selffinancing. The drug trade, by contrast, turns a regular profit because it involves transactions so mutually satisfactory that buyers and sellers will risk jail to conduct them. [...] In short, the drug war not only brings the law into contempt and threatens public safety, it also funnels money to terrorists and helps them move between countries. And people want more of it? I say a virtuous choice must be a choice to be virtuous, so I'd repeal the drug laws on moral grounds. But put aside my distaste for paternalism. If fighting the war on drugs increases the danger of losing the war on terror, surely it's doing far more harm than good. (9)

These editorials and features are interesting for many different reasons. First, they mark a major shift from the positions that were more tentative or simply favoured prohibition that had held sway since the beginning of the century. They were also part of a constant questioning of the government's role and the appropriateness of government spending and reflected growing concern for individual freedoms.

We do not know how they affect public opinion. We are not in a position to say if they reflect views held widely among the public or whether they are skewed. Only one thing strikes us as relatively certain: most major media outlets in Canada have distanced themselves quite significantly from prohibitionist policies.

  1. See the analyses by Giffen, P.J., et al. (1991), Panic and Indifference. The Politics of Canada's Drug Laws, Ottawa: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse; Boyd, N. (1991), High Society: Illegal and Legal Drugs in Canada, Toronto: Key Porter Books.
  2. Boyd, N., op. cit., pages 27-29.
  3. Quoted in Giffen, P.J., op. cit., page 61.
  4. Quoted by McKenzie King in Hansard, House of Commons, January 26, 1911, pages 2641-2642.
  5. Murphy, E., (1920), "The underground system", MacLean's, March 15, 1920.
  6. Murphy, E., (1922) The Black Candle. Toronto: Thomas Allans, pages 332-333.
  7. Gardner, D., "Why the war on drug has failed: Uncle Sam's war", Ottawa Citizen, September 5, 2000.
  8. Editorial, "Decriminalizing Drugs", Ottawa Citizen, April 12, 1997, April 14, 1997, April 15, 1997, and April 16, 1997.
  9. John Robson, "How many burbs must the drug war burn, before we call it a bust?, Ottawa Citizen, May 17, 2002.

Highlights of the Summary, Conclusions and Recommendations


Last Modified:Sunday, 26-Jan-2003 22:44:37 PST 25597