My Meeting with Chris Summerville

On August 20th , Cannabis Culture reported that Prime Minister Stephen Harper had appointed CEO of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada, and evangelical minister, Chris Summerville to the mental health committee that is studying the link between cannabis and schizophrenia. The initial story can be found here.

A fellow activist forwarded my letter to the editor regarding the appointment to Mr. Summerville. We exchanged email responses(his and mine ), and Summerville suggested that we meet for a glass of wine (or three) when he visits Vancouver for a mental health conference. I agreed, although I find it highly amusing that Mr. Summerville suggested that we meet to drink alcohol, a substance that has a far higher correlation to schizophrenia than any other substance. This post is my account of our meeting, and what I think should be made of Summerville’s appointment.

The first thing to be said about Chris Summerville is that he is one of the most genuinely pleasant people that I have ever met.

“I want to assure you,” he prefaces our conversation as we sit in the lobby of the lavish Fairmont Vancouver, “the conference is paying for my accommodations. I don’t spend non-profit money this way.”

Summerville seems very receptive to my concerns that this study is merely going to be used as propaganda to support c-2 (including mandatory bodily fluid samples for “drugged driving”), c-15, and the whole neo-prohibitionist agenda of the Harper government. In fact, he feels that this could very well be the case. He wants to assure me that he will not contribute to this, and that he agrees that creating faulty research would be detrimental to the community that he has spent his life advocating for.

“I was upset with how [Conservative MP] Joy Smith announced the research, and with a great deal of their rhetoric. I have had serious concerns with the Conservative government’s exclusion of the social sciences on matters surrounding mental health policy”

I explain to Summerville the discrepancy in the raw data. Cannabis use has exploded in the past century, yet incidence of Schizophrenia has remained fixed at 1% of the general population. Even though he is not a scientist, he speaks the language, which does slightly assuage my fear.

“There is one researcher on Vancouver island who strongly believes that there is a causal link. There are other variables to account for: environmental, dietary, and of course the changes in diagnostic methodology over time.”

We are joined by the vice president of the Mood Disorder Society of Canada, Bill Ashdown. Both men are adamant in expressing their displeasure with the Conservative government’s “tough on crime” strategy. Mr. Ashdown is far more vitriolic in his criticism, despite being a card carrying member of the Conservative party of Canada.

“If common sense ruled, then the whole war on drugs would be abandoned. It just makes no sense whatsoever” Ashdown said, echoing my own sentiments. It is an odd feeling, preparing for a heated debate and finding only consensus. “Unfortunately, politicians capitalize on fear. They have elections to win. These things take time.”

This should be both disappointing and reassuring for drug policy reform activists. On one hand, it appears that many influential mental health experts agree with us. On the other, they have taken a similar position to that of many scientists, and have refused to speak out for fear of reprisal. We may have allies that we have not fully realized in the mental health community. We have one significant shared burden: social stigma. Both those with mental health issues and those who use or abuse drugs (the difference is lost on prohibitionists), are faced with prejudice and hostility. Since prohibition adds to the social stigma facing those with mental illness, we would be well advised to build ties with the mental health community.

While I greatly disagree with Summerville on matters of faith and reason, and the existence of a theistic god, we seem to share a lot in common with how we approach our mutually exclusive belief systems. Summerville is an outcast among many theologians. He is quick to recount his experiences when he almost became an atheist as a young man.

“I have certainly had doubts about my faith. One of the most useful prayers for me is “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief”.

I explain to him how I dislike the term atheist, and that I think it is a bankrupt term that opens the door to generalizations and unfounded fear. “I feel the same way about the term “Christian”. In fact, I often do not like the interviews that I do with Christian media. I find that I am often misquoted, or that it is assumed that I am allied with the right wing. Evangelicals in Canada are much different than those south of the border.”

This includes the Canadian Christianity interview, where it was stated that there would be a spiritual aspect to his research. “Absolutely not. There will be no religious component.” When it was claimed that Summerville’s research is “a wonderful opportunity” for Christians to be involved in dealing with one of the most pressing issues in our society”, Summerville’s original quote was misquoted by somebody else, and was used for the interview to justify an incorrect assumption. Summerville believes that this is a “wonderful opportunity” for Christians to affect positive change to a serious problem, not for Christians to hijack policy and use tax dollars for a religious agenda. Summerville believes this is an opportunity for Christians to return to the true teachings of Christ.

Surprisingly, Summerville even took shots at the Bush administration. He believes that the inclusion of so many fundamentalists and biblical literalists in the government hurt the reputation of evangelicals. I try to hide my sigh of relief.

“There is nothing in the bible, the New Testament at least, that indicates that Christianity is right wing. Concepts like environmentalism and social justice are perfectly compatible with Christianity.”

None of the positive qualities or promising signs that Summerville exhibited should diminish in the least our collective suspicion of Harper’s intentions. While Summerville may very well be a valuable and influential friend of the cannabis community, Harper will either manipulate the research, spin it so that he can get what he wants out of it, or bury it. Our response should be to draw attention to whatever he does. If Harper buries the research, it will be up to each and every one of us to unearth it, and to facilitate the proliferation of the damning conclusion.

Prohibitionist propaganda has not improved since the days of William Randolph Hurst, Harry Anslinger, and Emily Murphy. In the case of Murphy, she said that two puffs of cannabis made one insane. Now, Harper is trying to revive that claim. Sure, they use “schizophrenia” in place of the word “insane”, but it is the same nonsense claim. Information kills superstition. Hopefully the good reverend can exorcize the spirit of Emily Murphy, and in the process help us kill the superstitious cult called prohibition.