Our Marijuana Law Stasis

Opinions on marijuana use have changed considerably over the years. Government policy, however, remains the same.

Neil Boyd
Associate Director, Criminology, Simon Fraser University.

My first foray into marijuana research began 40 years ago, in the spring of 1970. It was what sociologists call participant observation research; I smoked some hashish with my friends in my final year of high school and observed its effects on my behaviour. I noticed that the experience enhanced my appreciation of music, increased my appetite, and made me laugh at things that I might not ordinarily think were very funny. In sum, not a bad way to spend an evening in a small Ontario town. Perhaps not as wild and crazy as an alcohol-fueled evening, but not entirely disappointing either.

In 1972, after my second year of university, I was awarded a summer scholarship by what was called the Non-Medical Use of Drugs Directorate to study attitudes towards marijuana laws. My survey of a population in London, Ontario found that people who agreed with more punitive approaches to marijuana control were more likely to be dogmatic (as measured by the Rokeach Dogmatism Scale) than people who agreed with less punitive approaches. In retrospect, a relatively self-evident result.

By the time that I graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1977 I had become convinced that the criminal prohibition of marijuana was a waste of resources and, considering the relative harms of various drugs, an absurd proposition.

A few of us surveyed the graduating class and found that 85 per cent had smoked pot and that 70 per cent intended to continue with this indulgence beyond graduation (we failed to appreciate that red wine would ultimately appear to be both more sensible and seductive). The Globe and Mail ran the story on the front page. The dean of the Law School was not amused; he was in the midst of the “Osgoode Excellence Campaign,” trying to raise $1 million from former alumni, and our disclosure was probably not very helpful.

When I arrived at Simon Fraser University in 1978 there was very little support for the decriminalization or legalization of cannabis, there was no domestic production, and the medical use of cannabis was almost unknown. My comments on radio and television in favour of legalization occasionally provoked claims that I should be shot, imprisoned , and/or fired. It was a very different era.

Fast forward to the present: a majority of Canadians think the drug should be taxed and regulated in much the same way we tax and regulate alcohol and tobacco. Additionally, we now have a domestic production/export industry, along with a cumbersome and costly bureaucracy of “Medical Marijuana Access Regulations.”

What are the obstacles to sensible change? Some would say that smoke-ins like 4/20 are counter-productive, displaying marijuana users as childish, indulgent, and maybe just a little decadent – the portrait of cannabis consumption that your mother warned you about. But that criticism misses an important point: 4/20 rallies are best understood as political exercises, demonstrating a blatant disobedience by thousands – the tip of an iceberg of opposition – to a justifiably unpopular law.

The real problem is that no one who has the power to change the law has been listening – or at least they haven’t actually done anything to improve the status quo. I’m not sure whether the spectacle of 4/20 actually works to convince those Canadians who may be undecided, but I sympathize with the frustrations of the young hempsters.

Paradoxically, Canadians support both the removal of criminal penalties for marijuana use and tougher penalties for commercial grow operators. Put differently, Canadians are saying that they do not think adults who smoke pot in private should be treated as criminals or otherwise penalized, but that they do, understandably, have some issues with at least part of the system of distribution – young thugs with guns guarding valuable plantations, not a scenario that we are willing to tolerate.

You would think that the solution here would be easy. Just change the system of distribution – tax and regulate. Unfortunately, the Harper government only sees prohibition as a strategy. And the United States – the linchpin for change – has not shown much desire to move, at least in the near term.

Let’s acknowledge that cannabis is not harmless. Quite clearly, it’s not as dangerous as tobacco or alcohol, at least for most users, but it isn’t benign either. It can damage the lungs and impair short-term memory. Second, let’s acknowledge that criminal prohibition is costly and counter-productive. There is no compelling evidence from any corner of the civilized world to suggest that rates of consumption are related to the state of the criminal law. And third, let’s continue, some 40 years on, to ask for more creative legislation than the failed and costly status quo of criminal prohibition.