Three lies my government told me
or, can we start the revolution yet?
by Dana Larsen
Over the past four years I’ve written many letters to the Ministries of
Health and Justice about the issue of marijuana prohibition.
The standard form letter response, which has remained unchanged between
Conservative and Liberal governments, gives three reasons why the government
doesn’t want to decriminalize marijuana.
The first reason is that “decriminalizing cannabis could well
result in a greater use of the drug by Canadians, thereby increasing the
health and safety hazards associated with it.”
The second reason is that “easier access to the drug would
likely put Canada in contravention of international agreements to which Canada
is a party.”
The third reason is that “decriminalizing cannabis is likely to
meet with considerable opposition from the public.”
This is backed up with the statement that “past surveys of public
attitudes toward drug use and its control have consistently shown that most
groups oppose liberalizing access to drugs.”
These claims are false
The government’s own records reveal all of these claims to be false or
misleading. I have made a number of requests to the Ministries of Health and
Justice under the Access to Information Act, seeking records and information
which would justify these three claims. It took me over a year of letter
writing to finally get results, but what I eventually discovered surprised me.
If you have ever written to the Ministries of Health or Justice and have
received their form letter reply, write back and include the following
information in your response. Be sure to ask them to reply to your letter.
#1 Would usage rise if marijuana were decriminalized?
The first reason given by the Ministries of Health and Justice for continuing
marijuana prohibition is that “decriminalizing cannabis could well
result in a greater use of the drug by Canadians.” Aside from the
question of whether it’s more harmful for Canadians to be smoking pot than it
is for them to be in jail, I asked the government for some references for
their claim, under the Access to Information Act.
After an incredible fourteen months delay, I was finally sent twelve pages of
references. The first six of these pages were from the 28th UN Convention on
Narcotic Drugs, held in 1979, and were simply various comments made by
organizations in the Narcotic Drugs Division that legalizing cannabis could
Typical of these is a statement from the South-East Asia Division of Narcotic
Drugs, “that frequently discussed policies for the legalization of the
non-medical use of cannabis in any form would increase demand, and therefore
illicit production, often at the expense of important food crops. . .” No
references or sources were provided for this or any of the other claims made
at that meeting.
The other six of the twelve pages were excerpts from a very interesting
document called Questions and Answers on Cannabis, prepared by the
Department of Health in 1980. This document asks the question “Can
increases in cannabis use be attributed to reduced penalties for the
drug?” The answer they give, based upon two separate American studies, is
“Evidence from these two independent sets of data from the US
indicates that reducing legal consequences for possession of small amounts of
cannabis does not accelerate the growth rate in use.”
The report also states that “the growth of marijuana use was slowest
among states which reduced the penalties for possession in the mid 1970’s, and
most rapid among those maintaining severe legal regimes.”
So the only two actual studies which the Canadian government has on record
show that marijuana use would not increase if penalties were reduced or
eliminated. In fact, these studies indicate that severe marijuana prohibition
is even counter productive.
An interesting corollary to this point is the finding by the Addiction
Research Foundation that 92% of people who spend time in jail for a marijuana
offence continue to smoke marijuana once they are released from prison.
Clearly the law is not a deterrent either.
#2 Would decriminalizing marijuana put Canada in violation of
The second reason given for prohibition is that decriminalizing cannabis would
put Canada in violation of international drug control treaties which we have
My Access to Information request on this matter got me 33 pages of
documents, divided into three sections. These documents clearly show that the
treaties do not obligate member nations to jail or even punish users of
illegal drugs in any way. Further, Canadian law always takes precedence over
international treaties, and Canada can also withdraw from all these drug
control treaties without penalty.
The first section was a single page titled International Implications of
Cannabis Reform, prepared for the Health Protection Branch in 1980. This
document simply states that “with regard to the possession, cultivation
and transfer of small amounts of marijuana or hashish, punishment is not
required to be of a criminal nature.”
The second section was a 1979 memorandum prepared for the Ministry of Justice
by a “Senior Scientific Advisor.” This document was specifically
written to advise the government on the International Implications of
‘Decriminalization’ of Marijuana Possession. In this paper, the authors
conclude that “there is no question that Canadian legislation takes
priority over international treaties.”
This memorandum also mentions the 1972 amending protocol, which specifically
allows “treatment, education, rehabilitation and social
reintegration” as alternatives to punishment for all drug
The third section was the most substantial, a lengthy excerpt from a larger
document called “Cannabis Control Policy” prepared for the Ministry
of Justice in 1980. Under the heading of International Considerations
there is a quote from Adolf Lande, who served as secretary of the UN Permanent
Central Narcotics Board and the UN Drug Supervisory Body, and who was also one
of the main drafters of the 1961 Convention.
Lande writes that “the term ‘possession’ used in the penal provisions of
the Single Convention means only possession for the purpose of illicit
traffic. Consequently, unauthorized possession and purchase of narcotic drugs
including cannabis for personal consumption need not be treated as punishable
offences or as serious offences.”
The section on International Considerations also quotes the official UN
commentary on the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, as prepared by the
UN Secretary General. He writes “parties may undoubtedly choose not to
provide for imprisonment of persons found in possession, but to impose only
minor penalties such as fines or even censure.” (My dictionary defines
censure as “an official reprimand”).
Finally, this document explains how amendments to the international treaties
can be proposed by any party, and also how any party can withdraw from the
treaties simply by informing the Secretary General of the UN in writing. There
are no official penalties against nations who choose to withdraw from the
It is clear from this information that Canada could reduce or eliminate
penalties for the possession of marijuana or any drug without violating
international treaties. There is also no reason why we should not simply
withdraw from these treaties, or at least officially seek to have them
modified to promote harm reduction and tolerance as the building blocks of
international drug policy.
#3 Does the public oppose marijuana decriminalization?
The third and final reason given by so many successive Ministers of Justice
and Health as a reason for continuing the criminal prohibition of cannabis is
that “public opinion surveys have consistently shown that most
Canadians oppose liberalising access to marijuana.”
In correspondence from both the Ministries of Justice and Health, I was
assured that the surveys to which they referred had been conducted by the
Ministry of Health in the early 80’s. However, my Access to Information
request for copies of these surveys revealed that neither department had
any record at all that such surveys had been done. They simply didn’t
The only survey they could find was Canada’s 1994 Alcohol and Other Drugs
Survey. This survey clearly showed that Canadians are much more tolerant
towards marijuana users than the government would have us believe.
This survey reveals that 27% of Canadians think that the possession of
marijuana should be completely legal, and that 42.1% of Canadians believe that
marijuana should be decriminalized, punishable only by a fine or other
non-jail sentence. Only 16.8% thought that possession of marijuana should be
illegal with a first offence being subject to a jail sentence. The remaining
14% did not express an opinion.
So despite repeated government claims that decriminalizing cannabis would meet
with “considerable opposition” from the public, the government’s own
survey shows that 69.1% of Canadians support the decriminalization or
legalization of marijuana and trherefore oppose the Controlled Drugs and
Substances Act, and only 16.8% support this kind of brutal and intolerant
behaviour on the part of our government.
It’s worth remembering that these tolerant attitudes exist despite years of
government propaganda and misinformation aimed at marijuana. What might the
statistics say if all Canadians had easy access to accurate information?
According to all of the evidence provided to me by the Ministries of Health
Decriminalizing marijuana would not increase the rate of its use among
Decriminalizing marijuana would not put Canada in violation of our
Decriminalizing marijuana would be supported by a strong majority of the
The federal government’s own records clearly show that there is no basis to
any of the official reasons for continuing the prohibition of marijuana.
In fact, these records reveal that the government has been knowingly lying to
Canadians about all of these issues for at least 15 years, since all of the
studies and information I received dated from 1981 or earlier, with the
exception of the public opinion poll.
Can we start the revolution yet?
Make some official requests
I encourage all Canadians to request these documents for themselves and use
this information when writing to the media or the government. It’s easy and
fun to make an Access to Information request, and it only costs $5 for each
Use this letter which includes my reference numbers, so you just need
to copy or print it out, add a cheque for $15 made out to the Receiver General of
Canada, and send it to Anne Brennan, Departmental Coordinator, Access to
Information Office, Suite 34 ? Justice Building, Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0H8.
phone (613) 952-8361.
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