Canadian committees to spell decrim?

In 1996, when Canada’s new Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) was passed by the Liberal-dominated parliament, making drug laws even tougher, many Liberal MP’s (members of parliament) probably thought it was a done deal. The Senate still had to vote on the bill, but no one could remember the last time that the Senate ? an unelected “house of sober second thought” ? hadn’t rubber stamped everything that passed through parliament.
The Senate heard convincing expert testimony, including that of Cannabis Culture publisher Marc Emery and editor Dana Larsen, pleading for more rational drug laws (CC#05, The hempsters hit the Senate). Many ? perhaps more than half ? of the senators believed that the CDSA, as it stood, was unjust. Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, who sat on the Senate’s Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs rallied a call for a “joint committee [of the Senate and Parliament]to review all of Canada’s anti-drug laws, policies and programs,” in place of the Parliament-only review. Nolin and others on the committee believed that the Parliament-only review, scheduled for 1997, and run by the same Liberal MP’s that had just voted for the CDSA, would go nowhere. Half of the Standing Committee then went public with a call for decriminalization.

The bill was rubber stamped by the Senate anyway, but the standing committee managed to leverage at least one important change: the legalization of industrial hemp. The committee’s request for a joint Senate-Parliament review of the drug laws, however, was ignored. Nolin was mortified by the entire process.

“The new Controlled Drugs and Substances Act was fundamentally prohibitionist and, far from dealing openly with the drugs issue, it reinforced prohibition,” he complained in a speech before the Senate.

The CDSA was like the eighth you buy that’s a gram short ? it was a bad deal from the start. The CDSA was originally created as an act of the Conservative government, but was brought back by the Liberals and fast-tracked into law on the eve of the 1996 Quebec referendum, while the official opposition, the Bloc Quebecois, was boycotting parliament. No one was present to vote against or even seriously debate the bill.

Early issues of this magazine, then called Cannabis Canada, contained many articles analysing the proposed legislation and the expert testimony the government committee received (CC#00, An analysis of Bill C-7; CC#06, Welcome to the drug war). Although the mainstream press praised the new bill for “easing pot laws,” in fact it made them tougher, increasing cops’ powers to search pot suspects, allowing police to seize the homes of growers, and “streamlining” the justice system for more rapid processing of cannabis offenders, by removing the right to jury trials for some offences.

The federal Liberals promised that there would be a complete review of Canada’s drug laws after the bill was passed. One year later a special committee was indeed formed. It heard a few days of testimony, then was cancelled before reaching a single conclusion because of the 1997 federal election. The committee dissolved and never returned (CC#09, Canada’s drug policy review, reviewed).

Randy White. Photo: CP/Tom HansenRandy White. Photo: CP/Tom HansenNolin gets his committee

Senator Nolin still had a card to play. In 1998, Senator Nolin had Dr Diane Riley of the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse perform an exhaustive research of drug policy issues in Canada. Riley’s cutting conclusions tore Canada’s drug laws to shreds:

“[The CDSA] will continue to force Canadian governments to waste hundreds of millions of dollars annually,” she wrote. “It will show Canada as a regressive and repressive society? it will show that we have learned nothing from the total prohibition of alcohol during the 1920’s or from the utter failure of the United States to resolve its drug problems through ever increasing application of the criminal law.”

Nolin provided Riley’s findings to his fellow Senators and made stirring speeches on the futility of the drug war. On November 4, 1999, he made a motion to create the Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs, a three-year odyssey to explore the effects of prohibition. The motion was unanimously approved by the entire Senate.

The committee on illegal drugs swelled with the addition of Senators Colin Kenny, Tommy Banks, Shirley Maheu, Eileen Rossiter, Sharon Carstairs, Fernand Robichaud, John Lynch-Staunton and Noel Kinsella.

A research team would be struck to assist the committee with rigourous scientific analysis. The committee’s first task would be to hear from expert witnesses, said Senator Nolin.

“We’re trying to be balanced, but it is very difficult to find researchers, scholars, people who are really studying the problem who will come to the conclusion that we should maintain the status quo,” explained the Senator. “We know that there are some people who do, most in the United States and some in Geneva, and we will hear from them.”

After hearing from researchers, Nolin and the Senate committee will travel the country to gather “anecdotal evidence.”

The expert witnesses

Already, Nolin’s Senate committee has heard entertaining testimony from university professors, some knowledgeable, some clueless; from addiction research experts, some erudite, some naive; from experienced drug policy experts and from unfathomably ignorant police groups.

The hearings opened in October of 2000 with a presentation by Eugene Oscapella, executive director of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy. Oscapella hit home with an unqualified attack on drug prohibition. He explained how drug laws corrupt law-enforcement officials, who take extensive payoffs from criminal organizations, and how a massive underground economy fuels terrorist organizations while justifying the militarization of police and the erosion of civil liberties. He pointed to prohibition as the source of the problem. If drugs are a health risk, he asked, why not put overweight people in jail?

Line Beauchesne, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, agreed with Oscapella, adding that the government should focus not on prohibition, but on quality control (there’d definitely be a long list of applicants for that job), prevention programs, harm reduction and education.

Taking a slightly different approach, Neil Boyd, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University, revealed to the committee how Canada’s drug laws were originally based on racist, anti-asian sentiment. The anti-asian riots of 1907, he said, precipitated Canada’s first anti-opium laws. He continued with a history of prohibition, showing how increased intolerance of drug use in North America has only made it more popular, and how countries with less enforcement have a lower rate of use.

The committee ended on a low note with some of the “balance” Nolin was seeking to strike by having drug propagandists present their case. Psychiatrist Mark Zoccolillo, from McGill University, told the senators that cannabis and hallucinogen use has become a normal activity for teenagers ? a fact that many without a PhD have stumbled upon without doing multi-million dollar studies. He claimed “cannabis leads to other drug use,” “coherent trains of thought become impossible,” and “addiction can occur if the drug is used frequently over several months.” Zoccolillo recommended the creation of a government agency to pry into the lives of teens and terrorize them with similar hateful propaganda.

Senator Pierre Nolin. Photo: CP/Ryan RemiorzSenator Pierre Nolin. Photo: CP/Ryan RemiorzReturn of the expert witnesses

After a Canadian federal election in 2000, the Senate hearings resumed, with testimony from Bruce Alexander, a psychologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, who has studied drug addiction for thirty years. Alexander boldly told the committee that the federal government should stop meddling in the business of prohibition altogether, and let municipalities develop standards that reflect the values of local communities. Alexander, like many of the other presenters, blamed Canada’s drug war blues on the US, denouncing US-backed treaties like the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, which includes clauses to escalate the international drug war.

Another outspoken voice against America’s international drug-war influence was Dr Peter Cohen, the Director of the Centre for Drug Research at the University of Amsterdam, whose research is funded mostly by the Dutch Ministry of Health. He called the US “the Talibans of drug policy,” with reference to the despotic Taliban government of Afghanistan that commits violent human rights abuses against women.

Cohen revealed that US drug-war pushers regularly organize propaganda tours, inviting “hundreds of police, judges, prosecutors treatment people and doctors” from other countries into the US to brainwash them into believing the drug war is a good thing. He made reference to his book Is the addiction doctor the voodoo priest of Western man?, in which he traces the mythology that justifies the drug war partly back to the Victorian era. “Drugs and alcohol were viewed, like sexuality, as forces that would threaten the autonomy of the individual, and had to be banned,” he asserted. Which eventually led to the drug war. “The American powers seem to think that is the right way to go,” he added, nonplussed.

Professor Marie-Andree Bertrand from the University of Montreal pointed out the absurdity of even trying to fully enforce Canada’s drug laws. “What would they do with five million Canadians,” she asked, “if you brought them before the courts tomorrow morning?” Cannabis is no more addictive than sex, she argued, and should be legalized.

Dr Rehm, the Director of the Zurich Addiction Research Institute, took an economic approach to the problem. Rehm’s research showed that prohibition costs $442 million annually in Canada, but does not decrease the use of marijuana or drugs. Considering the higher cost of all-out prohibition over decriminalization or full legalization, he said, why not go with a less expensive option? Professor Eric Single from the Public Health Sciences Department at the University of Toronto, and a research associate for the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse with 29 years of experience, agreed wholeheartedly with Dr Rehm’s conclusions.

Added to the voices agreeing with Rehm was that of the erudite and well-spoken Dr Erickson, a senior scientist at the Canadian Addiction Research Foundation (ARF), who has been studying cannabis for decades and is the author of many excellent ARF reports on cannabis. Erickson added that the biggest cost of prohibition is not dollars, but the erosion of respect for the criminal justice system, a true statistical trend that her research has proven again and again.

Another speaker taking an economic perspective was Dr Alain Labrousse from the world-famous drug-research institute, the Observatoire g?opolitique des drogues (OGD, or Geopolitical Drugwatch in English), who addressed the relationship of drug economies to armed conflict and economic strife. His research found that years of all-out military-style drug war in South America, Afghanistan and other countries hasn’t stopped the production of drugs one bit. In fact, he said, it has only created further problems by exasperating local tensions and provoking widespread civil unrest.

For an example of this problem, he pointed to the US “Plan Colombia”, which involves sending billions to South America to enforce the drug war with military might. “Plan Colombia is sabotaging the peace process in Colombia,” he excoriated, pointing out that it has been condemned by the European Union and every single country in South America.

There were disappointing and partly-disappointing speakers as well. Dr Andy Hathaway, a sociologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, did extensive statistical studies into the use of cannabis that showed it is used for many benign purposes, like “to relax and feel good,” and that most people report only positive effects. But his presentation was laced with suspicion, and he seemed preoccupied with proving that cannabis causes respiratory problems and dependency despite, he said, “claims about its benign character.” In the end, however, he made a positive recommendation, comparing pot to alcohol or tobacco: “Why the need of the criminal justice machinery of the state to stop people from doing what they choose to do?”

As cops from the Canadian Police Association began their testimony, it became readily apparent that the rumour about police having to score low on IQ tests when applying for jobs might really be true. Retired officer David Griffin, Sergeant Dale Orbin, and Narc Glen Hayden all stood in front of the Senate Committee and grunted inanities. “There is no such thing as soft drugs or hard drugs,” complained Orbin. “People who refer to hard drugs or soft drugs generally either do not understand much about drugs or they are seeking to soften attitudes toward the use of certain illicit drugs. Generally, marijuana and its derivative products are described in this context.” He and his pals wasted much of the committee’s time repeating the same unfounded myths shown false long ago by rigorous scientific research, and succeeded in proving only that cops’ attitudes are about 50 years behind the times.

Although there are still more presentations to be made to the Senate Committee on illegal drugs, the last one given to date was by John P Morgan, the medical doctor who helped write the highly informative and influential Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts. Morgan cleared the air after the cops’ drug-war rant with an unqualified assertion that smoking pot doesn’t lead to harder drugs, emphysema, birth defects, or lung cancer.

The Senate Committee will continue to hear testimony throughout this year, and expects to produce its final report no later than August 31, 2002.

Prime Minister Chr?tien and President Bush. Photo: CP/Fred ChartrandPrime Minister Chr?tien and President Bush. Photo: CP/Fred ChartrandThe Parliamentary Committee

While the Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs was stirring up pro-decriminalization sentiment in Canadian newspapers, the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association published a call for decriminalization.

“The minimal negative health effects of moderate use would be attested to by the estimated 1.5 million Canadians who smoke marijuana for recreational purposes,” read the journal’s May 15 publication.

Many politicians reacted positively to the idea. Former Prime Minister and current Conservative leader Joe Clark supported decriminalization. “I believe the least controversial approach is decriminalization because it’s unjust to see someone, because of one decision one night in their youth, carry the stigma to be barred from studying medicine, law, architecture or other fields where a criminal record could present an obstacle,” he said.

Liberal Justice Minister Anne McLellan sat on the fence, saying she was open to debate on legalization or decriminalization, but didn’t openly promote either. This is typical of a politician whose stance has been consistently contradictory: in 1997 she and Health Minister Allan Rock openly backed new legislation for medical pot, but only a few months ago she was turning over control of RCMP squads to US narcs, and opening the doors to a DEA presence in British Columbia, which now has a headquarters in Vancouver.

A few days later, on May 24, federal Alliance MP Randy White made a motion for a country-wide debate on drug laws, and an all-party committee was struck to look into the issue. But Randy White is no activist ? he is a staunch anti-drug crusader who wants the government to take the drug war more seriously.

“I am talking about assessing the state of drug use in the nation, the state of our children in schools, the state of prostitution on the streets, and the state of parents from whom I receive calls practically on a daily basis,” White later told the media.

White’s motion revealed the serious divide between politicians on the drug issue in Canada. In some ways, his motion backfired, timed as it was so closely to the Canadian Medical Association’s demand for decriminalization. Many politicians saw White’s motion as an opportunity to study the drug issue with the intent of softening pot laws and made public statements to that effect. Even Health Minister Rock had a positive comment. “It [legalization]is one of the things that will be discussed by the committee,” he said that same day, “I am sure that I will participate with enthusiasm.”

When the motion came to a vote, it won unanimous approval from the House, but only because it was worded so broadly that it promised only to look at “the factors underlying or relating to the non-medical use of drugs in Canada.” Everyone who voted for the motion hoped to bend this wording to fit their own agenda.

“We intend to have a pretty wide-open discussion on how to proceed,” NDP MP Dick Proctor told the press.?”Everything has to be on the table, including the possibility of decriminalizing recreational drugs like marijuana for personal use.”

Yet nothing will be happening too quickly. On May 28, the Canadian Police Association (CPA) issued a public statement against marijuana tolerance. “Legalization and permissiveness will increase drug use and abuse substantially,” said pot-hating cops. “The costs of health care, prevention, productivity loss and enforcement will increase proportionately.”

The exact influence of the CPA on political decisions is unclear, but the very next day Prime Minister Jean Chr?tien put his foot down, crushing the hopeful, burning joint of pot freedom, saying “decriminalization and so on? is not part of the agenda.”

So, although this is the first time there have ever been two Canadian government committees struck to examine the drug laws at the same time, it remains to be seen what influence they will have. In a private audience with Alliance MP Jim Gouk in early June, I discovered that some politicians remain hopeful that there could be serious change.

The Parliament’s committee will likely report by November 2002, about three months after the Senate’s report is due. Both committees will be travelling across Canada and also hearing international testimony.

These government committees could be the first steps towards Canada adopting a rational drug policy. Right now there is more momentum for drug law reform in Canada than ever before. A recent survey conducted by Professor Reginald Bibby from the University of Lethbridge discovered that 47% of Canadians want marijuana, and its commercial sale, fully legalized, a sharp jump from only a few years ago. Among 18 to 34 year olds, that number rose to 60%.

But at the same time marijuana arrest rates are climbing across Canada, and there is more pressure than ever from the US government to crack down on growers and tokers. The deciding factor could be your voice. Contact these committees and write to the media ? tell them how you feel about sending innocent cannabis users to jail. Tell them you want the US drug war out of Canada!

? For information on the Senate Committee, or to testify, contact Senator Pierre Claude Nolin: Room 800, Victoria Building, Senate of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0A4; tel: 613-943-1451 or 1-800-267-7362; fax: 613-943-1792
? For information on the Parliamentary Committee, or to testify, call: 613-995-0183.
? To find out how to contact your Member of Parliament, call Reference Canada: 1-800-667-3355
? Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy: tel: 613-236-1027; email [email protected]; web