Cannabis control discussion
The Canadian Government almost legalized marijuana in 1979, and Canadians didn’t even know it. In preparation for a major change in drug policy, the Ministry of Health called on the Health Protection Branch (HPB) to produce a report exploring cannabis’ risks and possible alternatives to prohibition.
Alex Morrison, then Assistant Deputy Health Minister, called Mike Bryan, HPB policy analyst and former editor of the famous Ledain Commission, into his office to discuss the report.
“By the end of our meeting I was given carte blanche to assemble a team of leading researchers in drug pharmacology, epidemiology, the law and law enforcement, and to coordinate the preparation of a briefing document,” says Bryan.
The report, Cannabis Control Policy: A Discussion Paper, was soon completed. But before it could be released, the political winds had shifted. John Conroy, a veteran lawyer in the marijuana field, and former president of NORML Canada, reflects on those times.
“I want everyone to know that 1979 was the closest Canada came to decriminalizing marijuana possession,” says Conroy. “If all the political parties of Canada had agreed it would have been decriminalized. But we had the Creditiste Party in power in Quebec at the time, and they voted against.”
The final chop to the neck of legalization was international pressure.
By 1980, memos were circulating among the government’s many bureaucracies, including the Bureau of Dangerous Drugs, about Canada’s definite intention to sign into the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances (COPS). After it was signed, the multilateral COPS became a tired and regular excuse cited by politicians as a reason to maintain the status quo of Canada’s repressive marijuana laws.
The 1979 report, exploring less brutal regulations for marijuana, was boxed, buried and forgotten for twenty years. It stayed in the closet of a dusty government office until Bryan obtained the report himself, in an Access to Information request.
It is almost as if the 1979 cannabis report dropped out of some other dimension, where the Ministry of Health is really concerned about health, and not about pandering to the interests of pharmaceutical companies.
“The Department [of Health]’s primary goal is to minimize the harms resulting from cannabis use and a prohibitory response to such use,” opens the report. “An attempt to minimize health and safety risks through rigorous law enforcement will exacerbate the current individual and societal costs of enforcement.”
The position of the Health Protection Branch in 1979 has since become known as the “harm reduction” approach, and is widely promoted by anti-prohibitionists everywhere.
The report also acknowledges the bias of studies undertaken to justify prohibitionist rhetoric: “…scientific literature is riddled with inconsistent, methodologically questionable and unreplicated research [concerning cannabis],” state the report’s authors.
The only health problem the report found with marijuana is possible irritation due to inhaling it as a smoke.
“This problem is especially exacerbated by the additional risk that some samples of marijuana may be contaminated by paraquat, an herbicide which may be extremely toxic when inhaled,” states the report, in what is certainly a jab at the US Drug War.
In the 70’s, the US government sprayed thousands of acres of marijuana with paraquat, perhaps hoping to justify their claims that “marijuana is bad for you.” Because of the high incidence of paraquat, the report suggests that those with pulmonary or respiratory problems should be careful to refrain from smoking contaminated cannabis.
Other generally-accepted “harms” caused by cannabis are addressed with a similar cynicism. The report heavily quotes the work of Dr Leo Hollinster, “a California pharmacologist and one of a very small number of universally respected researchers in this field.”
Among the report’s many surprising findings is a direct quote from Hollinster that “the current admonition against using cannabis during pregnancy is based more on ignorance than on definite proof of harm.”
The report later backs up Hollinster in his conclusion that, “General toxicity studies of cannabis and its constituents lead to the inescapable conclusion that it is one of the safest drugs ever studied in this way.”
Police for prohibition
The report also explores the corrupt criminal justice system in Canada
According to the report, police officers use easy cannabis arrests to bolster their performance records, thus furthering their chances for promotion:
“The method of computing these performance statistics does not distinguish between an arrest for one marijuana cigarette and an arrest for non-drug offences such as a break and enter, which involve much more effort.”
The 1979 report is also sensitive to how Canada’s evolving drug laws have slowly given police “special powers” that should be deemed unconstitutional.
“Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of this power is that an individual may be forced to submit to a physical search in the absence of any evidence, belief, or even suspicion of wrongdoing of any kind on his part,” the report asserts.
Despite what the report describes as a “twentyfold” increase in law enforcement resources to curb cannabis use, and an increase in arrests of over “1000 percent”, the report finds that ? even in 1979 ? the drug war was a failure.
“Our experience since the late 1960s strongly suggests that the Canadian cannabis market is largely immune to increasing arrests, raids, and other law enforcement efforts,” the report notes.
Not only was the market as invulnerable in ’79 as it is now, but it was also expanding at an exponential rate.
“It is well within the realm of possibility that the current using population numbers 3.2 million or more. It would certainly not seem unreasonable to suggest that there are 3 million current users, representing one in seven (15%) Canadians aged ten or over,” reveals the report.
How many more smoke today?
Three pro-pot polls
Three major polls done during 1998 showed that Americans overwhelmingly support marijuana law reform. A July BBC telephone poll found that 96% of Americans supported the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes. A survey by Time Magazine found that over 90% of Americans wanted the government to legalize marijuana and other recreational drugs for adults only, which was backed up in a poll by the Internet news journal IntellectualCapital.com, which found that over 80% of respondents supported a similar proposition.
Making it legal
In the face of such statistics, the report suggested that the government make some serious changes to Canadian law. Alternative social-control measures explored by the report covered various options, including full legalization. Included in the legalization package was a consideration of the excise and customs controls to be applied to large amounts of cannabis coming across the border as an international trade item.
Cannabis Control Policy: A Discussion Paper covers many other social, economic, health and legal issues important to the cannabis community. Most importantly, however, it is a testament to the Canadian government’s willingness to blatantly disregard democracy, scientific research and humanity while buckling to international pressure.
The 1998 report
In 1998, the Canadian Government created the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, to support organizations which promote “treatment, prevention and education” of drug users.
In a move that shocked even the Canadian government, the seemingly prohibitionist organization released a study that recommended decriminalization, titled “Cannabis Control in Canada: Options Regarding Possession.”
“The severity of punishment for a cannabis possession charge should be reduced,” reads the report. “Specifically, cannabis possession should be converted to a civil violation under the Contraventions Act.”
Like the report of 1979, the report of 1998 also acknowledges that respiratory problems are probably the most significant health risk associated with cannabis use. Unfortunately, the 1998 report is a step backward from the 1979 report with regards to accuracy and intelligence.
For example, the 1979 report demonstrates a clear suspicion towards methodologically flawed studies. But the 1998 report makes vague and naive references to methodologically flawed studies, incorrectly inferring a whole range of possible negative health consequences for cannabis users.
Considering that the report came from the Centre on Substance Abuse, it is surprising that the report recommends alternatives to prohibition at all! An internal memo obtained from the Ministry of Health suggests that even they were disconcerted by the 1988 report’s recommendations.
“Moving too swiftly to liberalize the use of marijuana may result in an inability to control problematic use in future,” reads the Ministry of Health document.
The Canadian government may have its nose buried too far up an international treaty to make any changes to marijuana prohibition in the near future. Yet the more organizations that favour decriminalization, the closer Canada is to herbal freedom.