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Emily's Legacy

Source: Calgary Herald (CN AB)
Published: Sunday, March 7, 2004
Author: Randy Boswell, CanWest News Service

Easing Pot Laws Would Burn Up Emily Murphy

When MPs finally rise to vote, as long expected, in favour of liberalizing Canada's marijuana laws, they can expect to feel a slight rumble of anger beneath their feet.

On the east lawn of Parliament Hill, no further from the House of Commons than a sweet-smelling smoke ring might float in an Ottawa breeze, stands a towering statue of Emily Murphy, clad in sensible shoes and hat, one of her arms extended in a typically dramatic oratorical gesture.

Murphy -- best known for her role as leader of the Famous Five champions of the rights of Canadian women -- also spearheaded an anti-narcotics campaign in the 1920s that would profoundly influence national drug policies. In fact, the crusading Edmonton magistrate and journalist is widely credited with -- and widely blamed for -- initiating Canada's prohibition on pot 80 years ago.

Critics say the country's war on weed was prompted by little more than a racist, erroneous, sexed-up dossier on a non-existent marijuana "menace" -- a 1922 essay penned by Murphy with help from a seemingly delusional Los Angeles police chief.

"It's galling to hear groups who support prohibition argue that there must have been a sound reason for criminalizing this drug in the first place," says Eugene Oscapella, a lawyer with the Ottawa-based Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy. "There was no such thing."

The Liberal government intends to decriminalize small-time pot use and to toughen the law against commercial growers and dealers. Bill C-10, introduced in the House of Commons in February, would make the possession of up to 15 grams of pot and up to three marijuana plants punishable by tickets and fines of between $100-$500.

A prominent Alberta suffragette and social activist, Murphy was the first female magistrate appointed in the Commonwealth. She was also a prolific writer, churning out four books and scores of magazine articles under the pen name Janey Canuck.

A series of her stories on The Grave Drug Menace confronting Canada was published in Maclean's in 1920. Two years later, the series and several new writings were compiled in a book, The Black Candle, which included a chapter devoted to Marahuana: A New Menace.

The book relied heavily on comments Murphy solicited from police chiefs across North America. And the response she received from the head of the Los Angeles force -- quoted at length as proof of marijuana's "poison" -- is now considered a classic piece of paranoiac propaganda.

"Charles A. Jones, the Chief of Police for the city," wrote Murphy, "said in a recent letter that hashish, or Indian hemp, grows wild in Mexico but to raise this shrub in California constitutes a violation of the State Narcotic law. He says, '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 be severely injured without having any realization of their condition. While in this condition they become raving maniacs and are 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."

There's still a dash of mystery as to why marijuana was added -- seemingly at the last minute and with almost no paper trail -- to a list of drugs outlawed by the federal government in 1923. But most scholars believe the publication of Murphy's book prompted the ban, and activists pushing today to decriminalize pot tend to paint Murphy -- heroine of the landmark Person's Case for Canadian women's rights -- as a villain in the realm of drug policy.

"She's looked at as an object of derision," says Oscapella. "This woman was probably single-handedly responsible for the demonization -- and the criminal convictions -- of hundreds of thousands of Canadians over the years. Her writings were profoundly racist -- a very, very vitriolic, racist diatribe that had absolutely no basis whatsoever in science."

Oddly, the prime minister whose government introduced the 1923 law against marijuana didn't entirely trust Murphy. When Mackenzie King met her in October 1922 -- perhaps to be lobbied about the anti-drug law, but also to be pressed for a Senate appointment -- he described her in his diary as "possibly a bit too sensational" though ultimately driven by "a good purpose."

Decriminalization advocates blame Murphy for inspiring decades of misguided policies in which tough marijuana laws have functioned as "a solution without a problem."

In 1961, at a time when the drug was still barely in use in Canada, the Narcotic Control Act made simple possession of marijuana punishable by up to seven years in prison. By the end of that decade, as smoking up joined long hair as an everyday symbol of youth rebellion, more than 10,000 Canadians a year were being arrested for possessing pot.

The meteoric rise in the number of young citizens with criminal records began to force a rethink of marijuana laws. A 1972 report by the federal Le Dain Commission concluded the criminal prohibition on pot was a serious case of overkill, and urged immediate liberal reforms.

But nothing had been done by the 1980s, by which time the U.S.-led war on drugs seriously dimmed the prospect of decriminalizing marijuana in Canada. Not until recent years, when some Canadian courts began backing the rights of recreational users and the public rallied behind promoters of medical marijuana, did politicians begin warming again to the idea of liberalizing the law.

In September 2002, a Senate committee led by Pierre Claude Nolin reached a historic conclusion: marijuana, their final report concluded, should not just be decriminalized and subject to petty fines, but legalized altogether.

If that plan had been implemented, the shock might have been enough to jolt the bronze Emily Murphy back to life and send her clanking up the steps of Parliament.

But the bill now set to be passed -- not quite an endorsement of her "weed of madness" but a step closer to its acceptance -- will no doubt leave her quietly seething.

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Last Modified:Monday, 22-Nov-2004 13:16:57 PST