|Canada’s “Review of
the Misuse and Abuse of Substances” has ground to a halt. Sidetracked by
the federal election, the Standing Committee on Health may release a summary
of the evidence they have heard, but they are unlikely to issue a report
What follows is our review and summary
of the evidence presented at the final Spring meetings.
??? On February 18, the
Committee met with Fred Burford, President of the Council On Drug Abuse
(CODA). Burford spoke on CODA’s opposition to criminal records for first-time
possession of marijuana charges and expressed hope that his recommendations
would not “fall on deaf ears” with the Standing Committee on Health as
it did with the Senate committee.
??? At the same time, Burford
noted that “some submissions to the Senate committee recommended removing
the legal restrictions on cannabis. These submissions conveniently overlook
the state of Alaska, where the possession of cannabis in the privacy of
the home was legalized in 1976. The concomitant increases in cannabis and
the resulting problems among youth caused parent groups to force a statewide
vote in 1990. A majority vote resulted in the recriminalization of cannabis
in March 1991.”
??? Just to set the record
straight, Alaska decriminalized cannabis possession for people 19 and over
in 1975. Alaskans voted to 54.3% to 45.7%. to recriminalize after a massive
campaign by then-President George Bush spear-headed by then-Drug Czar William
Bennett. The same tobacco smoking, martini drinking, overweight William
Bennett that Bill Clinton sent to Arizona last April to incite an anti-medicinal
marijuana campaign. Bennett galvanized excitable, well-intentioned Alaskan
parents by erroneously claiming that 12-17 year-old Alaskans used marijuana
at “more than twice” the national average for their age group. In reality,
a survey conducted in 1982 by the University of Alaska showed that a 4%
of Alaskan students used marijuana every day, compared to 6.3% of all American
high school seniors.
??? Bennett based his “more
than twice” figure on a 1988 University of Alaska study whose author specifically
stated that “because there are so many variables” his study should not
be used to argue for or against legalization. Indeed, when Oregon, Maine,
and California decriminalized personal possession, cannabis use did not
go up. Northern aboriginal communities have always had higher rates of
alcohol and drug abuse than the national average and during the years of
Alaskan decriminalization alcohol consumption went down. The 1988 usage
numbers are self-reported, meaning that after 13 years of decriminalization
more Alaskan teenagers felt comfortable discussing their cannabis use than
teenagers in more prohibitive states. No surprise there.
??? Burford discussed CODA’s
own recent survey of Ontario students aged 12 to 18 which asked students
to agree or disagree with the statement “If legal restrictions on cannabis
were removed I would begin to use or use more.” 1,427 students agreed with
this statement out of a total of 4,903 students surveyed. “This means 29%
of the students would begin to use or use more, and therefore be at greater
risk.” concluded Burford. Well, not really.
??? We must first subtract
from the 29% those students who would begin to use or use more if legal
restrictions remained the same. We do not know how many would begin to
use or use more if legal restrictions were removed for adults only. We
certainly do not know how many would quit or cut down their use of alcohol
and tobacco, nor do we know how many would cut down on pot after the enforcement
budget had been reallocated to education and harm reduction. As is usually
the case, the CODA survey makes no distinction between use and abuse. The
29% figure is as meaningless as the Alaskan case study.
??? Burford reiterated
CODA’s support for sparing first time offenders a criminal record. Said
Burford, “So often when a young person is involved…? they are experimenting
and inadvertently they are caught. We just feel it’s too big a price to
pay as far as stigma is concerned.” Burden concluded, “As a secondary school
principal, which I was for over thirteen years, I did not see that the
fact that there was going to be a criminal record had any deterrent effect
whatsoever. They had no idea what it even meant.” So much for “sending
a message” to irresponsible teenagers by incarcerating responsible adults.
??? Fred Burford’s testimony
was actually a breath of fresh air in contrast to the testimony of Karl
Burden, the CEO of Concerns, Canada. Burden trotted out the usual list
of marijuana myths. “Marijuana leads to poor short-term memory and learning
problems. It impairs cognitive functions, with conditions worsening the
longer and more frequently smokers use the drug. These impairments, according
to some researchers, may not be reversible.” Readers may recall that this
“brain damage” myth is based on a rhesus monkey study conducted by Dr Robert
Heath in 1982. Heath forced monkeys to inhale pure cannabis smoke through
gas masks f long periods of time resulting in “apparent” brain damage through
oxygen deprivation. Heath’s work was sharply criticized for its insufficient
sample size (only four lucky monkeys), its failure to control experimental
bias, and the misidentification of normal monkey brain structure as “damaged”.
Immune System Damage
??? “Cannabis damages the
immune system,” warned Burden. This myth is based on studies where animals
were given near-lethal doses of cannabinoids. The results have never been
duplicated in human beings. Studies done in 1978, 1988 and 1994 have all
shown that hashish and marijuana may actually stimulate the immune system.1
Lung Damage and Cancer
??? Burden’s list continued,
“Marijuana contributes to lung damage and cancer risks that are 50% to
70% greater than those that are associated with tobacco.”
??? On April 3, 1997, researchers
at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Medicine
published the results of an eight-year study into marijuana and lung function
in Volume 155 of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care
Medicine. This comprehensive study was headed by Dr Donald Tashkin, one
of America’s foremost experts on marijuana smoking and lung function.
??? The study found that
“Neither the continuing nor the intermittent marijuana smokers exhibited
any significantly different rates of decline in [lung function]” as compared
with those individuals who never smoked marijuana. Researchers added “No
differences were noted between even quite heavy marijuana smoking and nonsmoking
The results of this latest long-term study
on marijuana and health repeatthe findings of an Australian group of researchers
at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. The Australian study,
published in March 1997, concluded that “the health of long-term marijuana
users is virtually no different from that of the general population.”
??? Naturally Burden added
“Of particular concern to us, because of our work with impaired drivers,
is the fact that the control of motor vehicles is impaired by cannabis.”
Driving simulator and closed-course tests have shown that THC and many
other drugs can effect driving performance. However, THC’s effects after
doses up to 300 ug/kg never exceed alcohol’s at BACs of 0.08 g% and are
not unusual compared to many medicinal drugs.2
The evidence also strongly suggests that
alcohol encourages risky driving whereas THC encourages greater caution.
In addition, cannabis users are better able to compensate for its adverse
effects. But then, any pot smoking professional driver (and there are thousands
of them) will tell you that. What any of this has to do with smoking a
joint in the privacy of your home is anyone’s guess.
??? Burden predictably continued
“Marijuana is addictive. This addiction is well described in the marijuana
literature.” It certainly is. This “addiction” is well described as “habituation”.
Yes, people will often repeat activities that feel good. A British survey
questioned “Trekkies” at two conventions and found that at least 10% of
them had maladjusted personalities and took the show too seriously. Star
Trek junkies dream about the show’s characters, argue about the plots and
spend up to $6,000 a year on memorabilia. Some showed irritability and
withdrawal symptoms when they weren’t getting enough Star Trek.
??? Cannabis is not physically
addictive in the way that tobacco, alcohol, valium and chocolate are. Cannabis
does not stimulate dopamine and no one is recommending coffee prohibition.
Give the addiction myth a rest.
??? Finally, Burden resurrected
William Bennett’s favourite fairy tale: “cannabis that’s available on our
streets today is many times stronger than that which was available in the
early 1980s.” I won’t bother repeating why this is wrong. Just remember
that any danger associated with cannabis consumption is not from the THC
content, but rather from other by-products of combustion which come along
for the ride. Stronger cannabis is safer cannabis.
??? Burden concluded his
testimony by saying, “Even if marijuana users face only a portion of the
above health and developmental consequences, there is justification for
maintaining the current legal status of this drug.” Based on what? The
success of cannabis prohibition?
??? The more dangerous
the drug, the less it makes sense to abdicate control and distribution
to the black market. Dealers work on commission. Dealers are not motivated
to label their drugs, they are not subject to quality control, they sell
to anyone of any age and they often sell “hard” drugs to the same customers.
??? If users face only
a small portion of the above marijuana myths, then it is high time we reduced
this harm through law reform and education.
Horror Story Confusion
??? Despite months of expert
testimony contradicting Burden’s horror stories and despite a lack of peer
reviewed studies to back him up, Committee members seemed to take Burden
seriously. Expressing his confusion, Bloc Quebecois Member Antoine Dube
remarked, “Some say that marijuana is not dangerous to your health and
that it does not cause dependency; others say the opposite. Quite frankly,
it’s very difficult to form a precise opinion in this case. I think we’re
going to have to ask for additional evidence sometime to try and clear
up this murky issue.” Months of expert testimony and dozens of peer-reviewed
studies negated by fifteen minutes of hyperbole.
The Wrong Message
??? As a parting shot, Burden
used the tired scare tactic “decriminalization or legalization will simply
send a message to young people.” As previously noted, young people have
little understanding of, or respect for, criminal law. Incarcerating responsible
adults is by no means the most cost-effective method to send a message
??? If we want to send
a message to young people why don’t we use more traditional methods of
communication? One of our official languages perhaps? Better yet, why don’t
we send prisoners who are now serving time for cannabis offences to high
schools to deliver personal messages on the difference between drug abuse
and responsible use? We could even pay them the thirty thousand dollars
a year we would otherwise spend to keep them hidden away behind bars.
Alcohol Prohibition Redux
??? Following Karl Burden’s
support of the status quo, the Committee heard the testimony of Diane Buhler
of Parents Against Drugs and John Bates from Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Bates shared some sobering statistics on the most harmful of recreational
drugs, alcohol. As he put it, “Alcohol is a drug. It’s as much a drug as
cocaine, heroin, or any other so-called illicit drug. It’s an addictive,
mind-altering substance.” Bates reminded the Committee that “the social
damage caused by alcohol outweighs that of all illicit drugs combined.
We lose something like 500 people to illicit drugs every year. We lose
about 19,000 to alcohol. Some 1,500 people die in impaired automobile crashes.
Alcohol accounts for some 65% of snowmobile deaths, 50% of all violent
crime, and so forth.”
??? What did Bates recommend
we do? More laws. Specifically Bill C-22, a Bill then before the House
that would mandate health and safety warning labels on alcoholic beverages.
Regarding punishment for drunk drivers, Bates said, “the penalties are
quite irrelevant. People don’t commit crimes with a view to being caught.
We’ve done a lot of things wrong in the battle against drinking and driving,
one of which is to assume heavy penalties are going to create something.
They used to have heavier penalties in Scandinavia, and that was broadcast
all over the world. It became the Scandinavian myth. They are just as bad
as we are.”
??? So heavier penalties
do not equal less abuse. Bates’ theory is supported by the relative cannabis
penalties and usage rates in the United States and the Netherlands.
Szabo Coming Around
??? Committee member Paul
Szabo seems to be coming around. As he put it, “what we do right now is
not working, so why don’t we decriminalize? Why don’t we just ease up?
That will make for cheaper, safer drugs, less violence in our society,
and all this other stuff. It’s almost condemning what we’re doing today
and resolving to try something else.” You can almost see the light bulb
glowing over Szabo’s head.
??? Still unsure, Szabo
asked, “is there any proof that harm reduction as a model is a useful approach?”
Try the web page of the Standing Committee on Health Paul. If re-reading
the testimony presented before your committee doesn’t convince you, re-read
the testimony presented to the Senate before they inexplicably approved
Rape vs Pot
??? When asked to explain
his objections to harm reduction techniques Mr Ben Jenkins of Concerns,
Canada, replied, “I would draw an analogy with rape on this question. Rape
is against the law in Canada, yet we know that a certain percentage of
the population is going to commit rape. What should we do? Should we give
these people one woman every two weeks or every three months, or whatever?
The parallel is there.”
??? This kind of inane
comment trivializes rape, since unlike drug use, rape is not a victimless
crime. Our society’s prohibition of heroin use might better be likened
to banning masturbation.
Why are we here?
??? The February meeting
concluded with a spirited, partisan, discussion of the Committee’s budget
and goals. “I’m a little concerned and I’m not sure what the heck we’re
doing now. It’s just not clear to me any more what the heck we’re doing
and why.” lamented Paul Szabo.
??? In case anyone else
has forgotten, the Committee has an extremely simple and narrow mandate,
narrowed down from the “comprehensive review” of Canada’s drug policy which
we were promised by both Parliament and the Senate, as a consolation prize
for the reckless passage of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
??? To receive evidence
about the harmful impact of misuse and abuse of legal and illegal drugs
on the social behaviour and physical health of Canadians;
??? To identify the relevance
of variables such as age, sex, ethnicity, socio-economic status and geographic
area on the demand for and effect of such substances;
To examine effective measures for reducing
the demand for and use of such substances through education, prevention,
treatment, and rehabilitation;
??? To make appropriate
recommendations on future policy actions to reduce the demand for such
Substitution and Treatment
??? On March 18, the Committee
convened with only three members present. They heard the testimony of Eric
Shirt from the Society of Aboriginal Addictions Recovery. Like so many
front-line professionals who have appeared before the Committee, Shirt
justifiably complained of the lack of funding for treatment in Canada and
lobbied the Committee for more.
??? Raising the issue of
health care costs, Shirt observed “people are going to doctors and getting
uppers or downers. One of the things Chief Chris Shade said is that whenever
our people en masse on the Blood Reserve fall off the wagon, our prescription
drug use falls, but when suddenly our people go on this rage of sobering
up, our prescription drug use goes up.” So it seems that, under certain
circumstances, supplying drug users with a safe and affordable supply of
drugs is quite acceptable.
??? David McKeown from
the City of Toronto Public Health Branch lobbied for passage of the Tobacco
Products Control Act, Bill C-71. He criticized the punitive nature of Controlled
Drugs and Substances Act, saying it draws attention away from creative
solutions to reduce the harm associated with illicit drug use, such as
needle exchange programs, methadone maintenance and prescribing controlled
substances to addicts. Like Eric Shirt, McKeown made a desperate plea for
treatment and harm reduction funding.
??? On April 8, the Committee
met with their French counterparts from the Cultural, Family and Social
Affairs Commission of France in a “question-and-answer-type thing.” After
lengthy diplomatic introductions, discussion turned to young people, alcohol
and drugs. The French “felt it would be a good idea to see how this problem
was being addressed abroad,” saying they had visited Sweden and Italy and
were scheduled to tour the United States. Readers may recall that our Standing
Committee did not travel across Canada as originally promised, due to budgetary
???? The Standing
Committee had a pleasant meeting with the French though, due to the diplomatic
nature of the visit, it yielded little of substance.? They focussed
on alcohol abuse, compared notes, and agreed that “education is better
than punishment.” As Francisque Perrut, member of the visiting Commission
put it “when talking about prevention, the important thing is not to ban
alcohol outright, but rather to educate people at a young age to have a
reasonable, healthy attitude toward alcohol or wine.” The meeting adjourned
to a dinner reception hosted by the Canada-France Association, where I
am sure both the Canadians and French demonstrated this reasonable and
The SocioBiology of Alcohol
??? On April 15, the Committee
heard the testimony of three witnesses. First was Denise Tompkins of the
Addiction Research Foundation, who discussed the pharmacology or biology
of alcohol. Next was Louise Nadeau of the Standing Committee on Addiction,
Government of Quebec, who spoke on the negative effects of alcohol consumption
from a social perspective. Last was Eric Single, a former director of policy
and research for the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. His position had
been terminated because of “budget cutbacks.”
???? Finally, at the
end of the April 15 meeting, the Committee turned their attention to their
long-awaited recommendations. They reviewed a confidential draft document,
“a summary of briefs and testimony so far” and pondered whether or not
to submit this summary to the House.
??? Concerned that the
report would not be ready before the anticipated federal election call,
the Chairman pointed out that “under House procedure, once the House is
dissolved the whole issue, including the committee, dies and would have
to be reconstituted under a new Parliament.”
??? Failing to reach consensus,
the Committee elected to withhold their interim report, or as the the Chairman
put it, to “tread water,” until after the federal election.
A Waste of Time
??? We did not see any recommendations
from the Committee before the passage of Bill C-8 on May 14, and unless
the new Parliament resumes the review, we may never see more than a summary
of the evidence. Should we be surprised? Not really.
??? On February 16, encouraged
by his public support of cannabis decriminalization, I sent Reform MP Keith
Martin a letter asking if he could share insights on the drug policy review,
specifically whether the Committee was learning anything not already learned
by the Le Dain Commission. Martin candidly replied “The current Canadian
review of our drug policy… is a waste of time.” Martin continued, “most
committees’ studies are make work projects for MPs as opposed to being
constructive and useful.” He advised me not to “anticipate that there will
be any new earth shattering insights into our management of illicit drugs.”
??? There you have it.
The review, which was supposed to have been some consolation for the inexplicable
passage of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, was nothing more that
a diversionary stall tactic.
Another Criminal Act
??? To add insult to injury,
on April 17 the federal government introduced a new anti-gang bill to combat
Quebec’s motorcycle gang drug-turf wars. The Criminal Organization Act,
Bill C-17, broadens police powers and creates the new ambiguous offence
of “participation in a criminal organization.” Other measures contained
in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and Bill C-17 include a new
peace bond that would allow a judge to prohibit associating or communicating
with other gang members, and changes to make it easier for police to use
electronic surveillance against gangs for up to a year, compared to the
current 60 days.
??? As if existing laws
governing weapons and explosives are not enough, the new law will make
it an indictable offence if a person “participates or substantially contributes
to the activities of a criminal organization, knowing that any or all of
the members of the organization are engaged or have engaged in a series
of indictable offences within the proceeding five years.” Are we leaving
anyone out? One wonders if the Criminal Organizations Act will apply to
corrupt police departments, political parties and their supporters.
??? Canadian constitutional
experts have advised the federal government that a law criminalizing membership
would not withstand a challenge under Sections 7 and 2(d) of the Charter,
which protect individual rights, including the right of freedom of association.
Yet, driven by Quebec’s squeaky wheel, the poorly worded and ill-conceived
legislation has moved through the House like shit through a goose. So we
see, bureaucracy can work if properly motivated. Perhaps the new federal
government will establish yet another “make work” standing committee to
retroactively review the legislation after it has passed.?
1. Kaklamani, et al., Hashish smoking
and T- lymphocytes, 1978.
Kalofoutis et al., The significance of
lymphocyte lipid changes after smoking hashish, 1978.
Marijuana and Immunity, Journal of Psychoactive
Drugs, Vol 20(1), Jan-Mar 1988.
Wallace, J.M., Tashkin, D.P., Oishi, J.S.,
Barbers, R.G., Peripheral Blood Lymphocyte Subpopulations and Mitogen Responsiveness
in Tobacco and Marijuana Smokers, Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, ibid.
Lynn, A.B. and Herkenham, M., Localization
of Cannabinoid Receptors and Nonsaturable High Density Cannabinoid Binding
Sites in Peripheral Tissues of the Rat: Implications for Receptor-Mediated
Immune Modulation by Cannabinoids, Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental
Therapeutics 268: 1612-23, 1994.
2. Marijuana and Actual Driving Performance,
US Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,
(DOT HS 808 078), Final Report, November 1993.
The Incidence and Role of Drugs in Fatally
Injured Drivers, National Highway Transportation Safety Administration,
by K.W. Terhune, et al. of the Calspan Corp. Accident Research Group in
Buffalo, NY (Report # DOT-HS-808-065).
For More Info
Contact author Matt Elrod by email at