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Marijuana In The Nineties: Social Or Legal Issue?

By: Debra Harper

written June 1994

“The spread of the use of cannabis, particularly among the young, and the effects of the attempt to suppress it now call for a fresh look at the justification of the law, at the alleged personal and social harm caused by such use,” (Interim Report-Commission of Inquiry into the Non-medical Use of Drugs, 1973, p.246)1

Can taxpayers justify the cost of law enforcement when an estimated 2.5 to 4.1 million people are going to defy the law regardless of the consequences, because they feel they have the undeniable right to use marijuana? (Jackson & Griffiths, 1991 p.144)2, That is a question we have to ask ourselves as taxpayers and members of society, because the cost to us is enormous.

When we become victims of any crime, we are glad that the resources are available to find the perpetrator. When we are told that police work is becoming increasingly difficult because of budget cuts, we can easily resent money being spent on ‘victimless crime’. That could be one of the reasons why attention is being focused on Canada’s drug legislation.

The debate varies from all drugs becoming legal and regulated through the health care system or retail outlets operating under the same guidelines as alcohol and tobacco, or if marijuana alone should be legalized. The mandate is clear: the government must justify the paradox that alcohol and other potentially harmful drugs are legal, but marijuana is not. The facts must be examined in the cold light of day to best determine where our tax dollars go.

Canada has studied this problem in great detail. On May 29, 1969, the Federal Government formed the Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical use of Drugs. It was spearheaded by Gerald LeDain, Q.C. and is commonly referred to as the LeDain Report. It was a massive undertaking as they studied all relevant data and research written up to that time. They held public and formal inquiries all across Canada and talked to over 12,000 people. In April, 1970 they released their Interim Report that would become the basis for the Final Report. It contradicted almost all of the common fallacies held by some of the general public.

The Commission effectively sidesteps the ‘marijuana issue’ by saying “There is general agreement that we lack sufficient reliable information to make sound social policy decisions and wise personal choices in relation to non-medical drug use.” (Interim Report, 1973, p.224). The Report grabbles with the issue of individual freedom and morality and notes that the proponents of legalization point to the John Stewart Mill essay ‘On Liberty’ to forward their view. The essay maintains that “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” (Quoted from Interim Report, 1973 p.236).

Some Christians, who worry more about God, rather than the government being offended, refer to Genesis 1:12 which reads, “And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.” The flip side of the coin is society has a right and obligation to protect itself from certain substances and it is not immoral to enforce morality.

So in these hard economic times, what kind of answers do we need right now? Do we need social control and education or more legal control and enforcement? Looking at this issue historically and then in reference to Canada’s current laws may shed some light.

The earliest record of hemp originates from a pharmaceutical book written by Emperor Shen Nung around 2737 B.C.. Dr. Norman Taylor3 reveals that the ancient Chinese knew more about properties of hemp, especially its medicinal purposes, than we do today. In 1753 Linnaeus dubbed the plant Cannabis Sativa and it is called hemp, marijuana or cannabis interchangeably.4

The plant is best known in India, and has been intertwined with all aspects of life well before 800 B.C.. Hemp was so entrenched in the native culture and used to such an extent, mainly as a drink called ‘bhang’, that it perplexed the ruling British enough to study the phenomenon. In 1894 The Report of Indian Hemp Drug Commission was published. It took two years to complete, and filled seven volumes of over three thousand pages. The report was the first complete study to be undertaken and is still consulted by serious scientists today. It concluded that there was no mental or moral injuries from long or moderate use of the drug. (Ed. Solomon,1966,pp 32-36)5

The next comprehensive report was published in 1944 by the New York Academy of Medicine. It was commissioned by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who was not impressed with all the media and public hype caused by the fairly new anti-drug legislation. LaGuardia wanted facts, not fiction. Significantly, the report came to the same conclusion as The Indian Hemp Report written fifty years before (Solomon, 1966,xvii). It also concluded that marijuana is not addictive; the catastrophic effects of smoking it are unfounded; and that it is more of a nuisance than a menace (p.41).

The LeDain Commission (1973) confirms other studies arrive at the same conclusion and their findings are congruent with the other reports:

  1. Cannabis has little acute physiological toxicity. No deaths due directly to smoking or eating of cannabis have been documented (p.76)
  2. Although the possession of cannabis is a crime...there is no scientific evidence that cannabis itself is responsible for the commission of other forms of criminal behaviour (p.82)
  3. Physical dependence on cannabis has not been demonstrated... (p.83).
  4. in appears that heavy use of sedatives (alcohol and barbituates) rather than cannabis has most frequently preceded heroin use. (p.85)
  5. ...the Commission is of the opinion that no one should be liable to imprisonment for simple possession of a psychotropic drug for non-medical use (p.242)
  6. the harm caused by a conviction for simple possession appears to be out of all proportion to any good it is likely to achieve... (p.243).
  7. Since cannabis is clearly not a narcotic...we recommend that the control of cannabis be removed from the Narcotic Control Act and placed under the Food and Drug Act (p.249).

Just how did the laws that we live under today come in to being? The LeDain Commission states:

"It is idle to pretend that cannabis was brought under its present criminal law proscription on the basis of clear and unequivocal scientific evidence of its potential for harm. Although the precise historical reasons for the decision to suppress its use are somewhat obscure, there is no evidence that scientific judgment played a leading role." (p.246)

Indeed, it was not any exhaustive research that led the Canadian government to outlaw hemp. Instead, “Marijuana control began in Canada in 1923 with a single sentence in Hansard: `There is a new drug in the schedule” (Boyd, 1991, p.80). 6 What is really quite amazing is the reason why any type of anti-drug legislation was introduced in the first place. It had more to do with racism than moral outrage.

It all began in the latter part of the nineteenth century; labour was in short supply and companies such as CPR had very big projects developing in western Canada. One answer was to import very cheap Chinese labour. The crisis began when employment was on the decline and the white population was having difficulty tolerating the cheap Chinese and Asian labourers. They targeted the immigrants as being the cause of the unemployment problem. Race riots ensued, and the Liberal government of the day sent Mackenzie King to Western Canada to settle the damage claims made by Asian merchants. The problem is summed up:

"Substances were first criminalized in Canada as a consequence of a labour crisis. The law would get ‘some good” out of a racist riot, by criminalizing the drug industry of the race against which the riots were directed. There was no public interest in this legislative initiative. The Chinese opium industry had been in operation for 40 years; the provincial press of that period was not concerned with the practice of opium smoking; provincial and local governments were interested only in taxing revenues of the businesses involved." (Jackson & Griffiths,1991 p.141)

So where do we stand today, 70-odd years after the introduction of prohibition? Is Canadian society better off or worse off; or even affected by the legal restrictions? Today’s criminology students are learning from texts that “the label of deviance is under debate; a substantial community of users undermines, by its very existence, the legitimacy of state authority” (Jackson & Griffiths,1991, p.141)

The substantial number of users is costing taxpayers millions of dollars to maintain law enforcement and the judicial and penal systems dedicated to suppress drug use. If this was a war that could be won using the legal system as a weapon, than perhaps some taxpayers would be more supportive. But many prominent people such as Raymond Kendall, the Head of Intrepol; and Eugene Oscappella, of the academic group, Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy; and Neil Boyd, Professor of Criminology at Simon Fraser University, are publicly declaring that this is a battle that can never be won, so let’s think of a more intelligent way to handle drugs. Are we listening to the experts? And if we are listening, then what are we doing about it?

And what is the government doing? Well, in 1990, (the last year that figures were available7) 41,000 people were convicted of drug-related offences in Canada (Calgary Herald).8

And what is the government saying? At a drug trial that ran from February 1984 until June 1985 and cost the taxpayer in the neighbourhood of $6 million dollars, Dr. John Henderson, the Director of Health and Welfare Canada was called upon as an expert witness. He was asked by the Crown Prosecutor to explain how the current research, which was being done on mice, might apply to humans. Dr. Henderson reasoned that:

"The dose that would actually kill man is very high indeed, really well beyond what would be achieved by almost any amount of smoking... The drug is really quite a remarkably safe one for humans, although it is really quite a dangerous one for mice and they should not use it. (Boyd,1991, p.78)

In March of 1994, Health Minister Diane Marleau announced that the Federal Government will decriminalize the growing of hemp for commercial purposes. This move was intended to pacify former tobacco farmers. It also coincides with the decriminalization in some European countries, so we can avoid importing a product that can be grown nationally. This move by the government does absolutely nothing about the real issue associated with hemp.

But what about the governments moral obligation to protect people from themselves? Again, let us look at the facts; In the Netherlands, where the sale and possession of cannabis are legal, the rate of usage among youth is 2%. In Canada the rate is 10% (Boyd,1991,p.104). Lobby groups such as ‘Canada West Drug Watch’ want us to ignore the facts and as part of their Agenda advocate “ a doubling of police budgets in Canada...dedicated mandatorily to the investigation of drug offenses and drug related offenses” (Canada West Drug Watch, 1992, p.117)8.

They would also like to see mandatory life sentences, without parole, pardon, or probation for people convicted of drug trafficking. Money for their proposals would be allocated from other areas of crime (they do not specify what crimes) that they think are too petty for the police to be concerned about. The ‘get tough’ approach of this group will probably be unsuccessful because of its extremist nature and the contents are mainly rhetorical with no basis in fact.

So how can we decide if marijuana is a social issue or a legal issue? In this case hindsight might be helpful. The LeDain report feels:

"There has not been enough informed public debate. Certainly there has been debate, but too often it has been based on hearsay, myth and ill-informed opinion about the effects of the drug. We hope that this report will assist in providing a basis for informed debate..." (Interim Report, 1973, p. 247)

As with almost everything else in the LeDain report, this advice has gone unheeded. We are no more informed now than we were over twenty years ago when the Report was written. The pro’s and con’s of legalization are swirling around the media once again, but this time taxpayers are demanding justification for the legal restrictions. Many believe that ‘society’s ill’s’ are the cause not the symptoms of drug use and want social reform.

They also find it hard to understand why an imaginary line has been drawn between different types of drugs and some are legal and some are illegal. There is no logic to this when a drug like cannabis, that is used by so many, and is known to have beneficial medical uses as well as thousands of commercial uses, finds itself on the wrong side of the line. As far back as 1963, Dr. Norman Taylor realized that it would be more worthwhile to view it realistically and tax and license growers than to try and squash it. We could reap the benefits of fewer criminals, less money spent on enforcement and more tax money pouring into government coffers. We would then “avoid the worst excesses of Prohibition. Hemp would then, like tobacco and alcohol, become another measure of character, not a cockpit of controversy’ (Ed. Solomon, 1966, pg.45)

We can not keep trying to sweep marijuana under the carpet of time and say the problem does not exist. It does exist and realistically it is going to keep on existing. Tighter legal controls are only going to result in more tax dollars being poured into a lost cause. Society has already proven with tobacco that use of the drug has actually declined when information became available concerning its potential for harm. Education, not law enforcement, is where tax money should go. With proper education and cultural acceptance, marijuana use could actually decrease. As long as it remains forbidden and mysterious, the temptation, especially by youth, to experiment will always be strong.

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  1. Interim Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs (1973). Ottawa: Information Canada p.246

  2. Jakson, M.A. & Griffiths, .T. (1991). Canadian criminology - perspectives on crime and criminality.p.140 Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Canada, Inc.

  3. Taylor, N. (1966). The pleasant assassin: The story of marihauana. In. D. Solomon (ed.) The marihuana papers (pp.31-47) New York: Signet Books.

  4. The distinction between hemp and cannabis is becoming distinguishable as hemp is what we where and cannabis is what we ingest most commonly by smoking.

  5. Solomon, David - Forward (editor)(1966) The marihuana papers. New York: Signet Books.

  6. Boyd, N. (1991). High society - legal and illegal drugs in Canada. Toronto: Key Porter Books Limited.

  7. Criminal Code drug penalties come under fire by academics. (1994, March 21) Calgary Herald. p.A7.

  8. For a complete history of arrests for cannabis since the enactment of prohibition in 1923 [go here]

  9. Canada West Drug Watch (1992). A report on the Canadian war on drugs for 1992 and an agenda for change . New Westminister: Canadian Parents Against Drugs Society

Further reading:
  • MacFarlane, B. (1986) Drug offences in Canada (2nd.ed.) Aurora: Canada Law Book Inc.

Cannabis and Canada: The Year 2000 In Review

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Last Modified:Sunday, 08-Sep-2002 14:25:25 PDT