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An Introduction to the Drug Policy Reform Movement

by Matthew Elrod
Prepared for and presented (in an abbreviated form) to the Western Regional Criminology Articulation Committee at the Justice Institute of British Columbia, New Westminster, on May 26, 2000.

My name is Matthew Elrod. I am a freelance librarian and web site designer by trade. I live in Victoria with my wife and our three children.

I confess that when John Anderson invited me to speak to you today I was a little intimidated. I am not a drug policy expert. I have no degrees or credentials. I suggested that John instead contact Professor Neil Boyd or one of the other more qualified lawyers, sociologists and drug addiction specialist involved with the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy. (1)

But John explained that you might be growing tired of academics and law enforcement officials and thought you would find a genuine self-taught grassroots activist a refreshing change of pace ... so here I am.

I became involved in drug policy reform shortly after getting on the Internet in 1996. Up until then, I had thought that drug policy reform was in good hands and I passively looked forward to an end to the "war on drugs", but when I became acquainted with the drug policy reform community through the Internet, I concluded that they would never succeed without my help. :-)

I discovered and joined the Drug Reform Coordination Network (2), who described themselves as the central Internet resource for drug reform activism.

I took particular interest in the DRCNet "Media Awareness Project" (3), a concerted effort to educate the media on drug policy issues and make them "aware" of the DRCNet online drug policy library (4), a large collection containing most if not all of the major drug policy studies conducted and commissioned by various governments since the turn of the 20th century.

At first I focussed my attention on Canadian drug policy, founding the Canadian Media Awareness Project (5). I felt I could make a bigger impact in Canada. But before long my budding Internet talents were discovered by the American drug policy reform movement and I was sucked into what my late friend, Vancouver Police Constable Gil Puder, described as the "vortex" of drug policy reform. (6)

By early 1997 I was the webmaster of the Media Awareness Project. MAP had broken off from the Drug Reform Coordination Network, and with my help, had begun to provide a comprehensive archive of drug policy news clippings and free e-mail subscription services.

The MAP site is now approaching three million "hits" per month. The news archive contains more than 37,000 fully searchable clippings. Using the services of Webtrends, an independent company that provides web site popularity analysis, we recently compared the MAP site to some of the big boys with the billion dollar budgets who support the drug war. Here is what we found:

MAP has outstripped the ONDCP, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, DARE and the Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse combined. We have accomplished this largely with volunteer efforts and a minuscule annual budget. We are not only competing with these multi billion dollar taxpayer-funded organizations, we are beating them on the web and by a fairly wide margin. (7)

Indeed, we seem to have won the battle of the Internet. Online polls consistently show overwhelming support for drug policy reform. Prohibitionists rarely engage us in online debate because they know we can cite online peer-reviewed evidence chapter and verse. Additionally, public opinion polls have found that prohibitionists tend to be of lower education and economic status (8) while cyber citizens are typically well educated and well-to-do.

MAP attempts to bridge the gap between the virtual and the real world by encouraging e-mail letters to the editor. To illustrate, I would like to share a letter published in the Arlington Texas Morning News last week.

"I was quite surprised by the letters in response to U.S. Rep. Joe Barton's position regarding the war on drugs and the fact that the Arlington Morning News published them. In the editor's note was posted a Web site (www.mapinc.org) stated as the source of many of the letters. I went there thinking that I would spend maybe half an hour checking it out, thinking it was perhaps a self-interest site. I found myself there for most of the day.

In trying to put this letter together, it became evident that it would take a book to express the real horror of this drug war. I could not believe - or I should say that I tried not to believe - that which I was reading. Rather then express my anger by telling of all the why's and come away looking like a fool, I felt that it would be better for those people who were interested and could really be objective to look for themselves. In doing so, perhaps you too will become angry."

In addition to my work with MAP, I have taken on database and web site development, mailing list administration and technical support duties for a number of drug policy reform organizations, among them:

Common Sense for Drug Policy (9), a drug policy think tank based in Washington, D.C.; DrugSense (10), a group who provide web space, mailing lists and technical support to smaller regional and special drug policy interest groups; The November Coalition (11), a growing body of American citizens, mostly the family members of drug war prisoners, whose lives have been gravely affected by their government's present drug policy; and Family Watch (12) a group concerned about the impact of drug policy on families, women and children.

I still try to stay involved with Canadian drug policy. I contribute articles and work part-time for Cannabis Culture Magazine (13) and the Vancouver Compassion Club (14) and I run a national e-mail discussion list for like-minded Canadians (15), but I also recognize that Canadian drug policy is heavily influenced by, if not dictated by, the United States. When considering reform, Canadian politicians tend to settle on the question, "what would the Americans say?"


What is the drug policy reform community? Who are these "legalizers" and what fiendish plot do they have in mind? Of course, that would depend on who you asked. In testimony before a congressional committee, (16) U.S. Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey described the movement thusly:

"Proponents of legalization know that the policy choices they advocate are unacceptable to the American public. Because of this, many advocates of this approach have resorted to concealing their real intentions and seeking to sell the American public legalization by normalizing drugs through a process designed to erode societal disapproval.

International financier George Soros, who funds the Lindesmith Center, has advocated: "If it were up to me, I would establish a strictly controlled distributor network through which I would make most drugs, excluding the most dangerous ones like crack, legally available." William F. Buckley, Jr. has also called for the "legalization of the sale of most drugs, except to minors."

Similarly, when the legalization community explains their theory of harm reduction -- the belief that illegal drug use cannot be controlled and, instead, that government should focus on reducing drug-related harms, such as overdoses -- the underlying goal of legalization is still present. For example, in a 1998 article in Foreign Affairs, Mr. Nadelmann expressed that the following were legitimate "harm reduction" policies: allowing doctors to prescribe heroin for addicts; employing drug analysis units at large dance parties, known as raves, to test the quality of drugs; and "decriminalizing" possession and retail sale of cannabis and, in some cases, possession of "hard drugs."

Legalization, whether it goes by the name harm reduction or some other trumped up moniker, is still legalization. For those who at heart believe in legalization, harm reduction is too often a linguistic ploy to confuse the public, cover their intentions and thereby quell legitimate public inquiry and debate.

In many instances, these groups not only advocate public policies that promote drug use, they also provide people with information designed to encourage, aid and abet drug use. For example, from the Media Awareness Project website a child can "link" to a site that states: Overthrow the Government! Grow your own stone! It's easy! It's fun! Everybody's doing it! Growing marijuana: a fun hobby the whole family can enjoy!"

"The linked website goes on to provide the reader with all the information needed to grow marijuana, including a company located in Vancouver, Canada that will ship seeds or plants.

The Media Awareness Project website also includes links to instructions about how drug users can defeat drug tests. Similarly, the websites of both the Drug Policy Foundation, a self-proclaimed drug policy reform group, and the Media Awareness Project, both provide links to a site that gives instructions for how to manufacture the drug 'ecstasy.'"

I have not found the time to track down the alleged ecstasy link. We provide links to so many drug-related sites it would be difficult to avoid linking to anything McCaffrey would consider promotional. I can tell you, as someone passingly familiar with the world wide web, that if I were looking for an ecstasy recipe I would go to one of the major search engines, not the Media Awareness Project.

An interesting aside, a study conducted last fall determined that any two randomly picked pages on the World Wide Web are on average just 19 clicks away from each other. The findings, reported in the journal Nature, suggest that the Web is so interconnected any desired information is nearby even though there are over 800 million documents available.

McCaffrey continued:

"Careful examination of the words -- speeches, webpostings, and writings -- and actions of many who advocate policies to "reduce the harm" associated with illegal drugs reveals a more radical intent. In reality, their drug policy reform proposals are far too often a thin veneer for drug legalization.

What do drug "legalizers" truly seek? They want drugs made legal -- even though this would dramatically increase drug use rates. They want drugs made widely available, in chewing gums and sodas, over the Internet and at the corner store -- even though this would be tantamount to putting drugs in the hands of children. They want our society to no longer frown on drug use -- even though each year drug use contributes to 50,000 deaths and costs our society $110 billion in social costs. And, they want the government to play the role of facilitator, handing out drugs like heroin and LSD.

There is a carefully-camouflaged, well-funded, tightly-knit core of people whose goal is to legalize drug use in the United States. It is critical to understand that whatever they say to gain respectability in social circles, or to gain credibility in the media and academia, their common goal is to legalize drugs."

Consider yourselves forewarned :-)

The General is partially correct in that some reformers council against using the dreaded "L" word in public. I am not one of them because, among other reasons, the prohibitionists seem to be on to this "linguistic ploy". I am not prepared to limit my vocabulary to avoid programmed knee jerk reactions. I would sooner change the programming.

I met up with Hilary Black, the founder of the Vancouver Compassion Club recently and we got to discussing Marc Emery, Vancouver's "Prince of Pot". Hilary described how her medicinal cannabis club has been operating in a legal grey zone. She shared a Vancouver Sun clipping in which a police spokesperson explained that they have bigger fish to fry. She attributed Vancouver's tolerant attitude toward cannabis, in part, to Marc Emery, explaining, "He kind of burned the grass ahead of us ... created a bubble."

I see it that way as well. The more flamboyant reformers, legalizers, libertarians, hippies and anarchists, create a bubble in which less intimidating reformers such as Hilary seem reasonable by contrast. To borrow from police tactics, good activist/bad activist.

Are we a well-funded tightly-knit group whose goal is to legalize drugs? Here is what columnist Ken Krayeske from the Hartford Connecticut Advocate had to say about the drug policy reform community in May of last year. (17)

The hundreds of groups that form the drug policy reform movement nationwide seem to have taken their political cues from Monty Python's Life of Brian. While the organized resistance to America's official war on drugs is not a comedy set in Christ's Jerusalem, a look inside the movement reveals reformers doing exactly what makes Life of Brian so hilarious: adopting acronyms, holding meetings, bickering over trivialities and espousing conflicting political stances while the enemy runs roughshod.

Yes, Connecticut's drug reform movement certainly has its equivalents of the Popular People's Front, People's Front of Judea and Popular People's Front of Judea:

Three years ago Cliff Thornton left his $70,000 a year job in middle management at the phone company to start Efficacy, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending the war on drugs. He and his wife, Maggie, work out of their Windsor home full-time, telling anyone who will listen that rather than enforcing antiquated and unjust prohibitions, the common sense answer is legalization and regulation of marijuana, and the medicalization of hard substances such as cocaine and heroin.

Mike Gogulski of Hamden juggles his 9-to-5 job at a computer firm with his passion for stopping the madness of prohibition. Gogulski considered joining Efficacy, but instead in January, he and a few others formed the Connecticut Cannabis Policy Forum. Their mission is to remove all penalties for marijuana consumption by adults in Connecticut.

Former state legislator and four-time mayor Bill Collins of Norwalk sparked up A Better Way in 1994 to lobby for legislative change in drug policy. In 1995, he pushed for the Connecticut Law Revision Commission's landmark study that eventually concluded the solution was harm reduction: that is, treating substance use as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice problem.

These groups represent only a few of the leaves of the plant of protest that keeps growing both in Connecticut and nationwide. Across the U.S., there are more than 400 drug policy reform organizations that include think tanks, political parties and non-profit education centers, according to Aaron Wilson, who works for the Partnership for Responsible Drug Information. About 350 of these have formed in the last decade.

They have formed to respond to the government's escalating war on drugs and users. According to FBI statistics, arrests for possession of marijuana alone have soared since 1992, the year before Bill Clinton assumed the presidency. That year, 342,000 people were arrested. By 1997, that number had jumped to 695,000. Clinton's regime has arrested 2.8 million smokers to date, more than presidents Nixon, Reagan or Bush. Data shows that 87 percent of those arrested were for simple possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.

While the generals in the drug war would point to these figures as proof that the battle is being won, increasing numbers of people from divergent parts of society are reaching an entirely different conclusion. In recent years conservatives from William Buckley to cops such as former New Haven Police Chief Nicholas Pastore have come out in favor of some kind of legalization.

Their reasons are myriad. One arrest for even a minor marijuana-related indiscretion can throw a life into turmoil. The government can invoke asset forfeiture laws and seize property, including houses, cars and bank accounts. Accused users are left broke, unable to afford legitimate counsel. The Department of Children and Families can use an arrest as grounds to declare an unfit family, and break up the family unit.

The burden on the criminal justice system prevents cops, courts, and jails from putting their resources into ending truly violent crime. Thanks in part to an overburdened jail system filled with minor drug-related offenders, a murderer can spend less time behind bars than someone convicted of crack cocaine possession. Housing a prisoner costs at least $25,000 annually.

Connecticut alone has about 16,653 men and women serving time, about 23.8 percent of whom are in for non-violent drug offenses. The ancillary expenses, such as health care for the prisoner with AIDS or tuberculosis, add up as well.

Even for those not arrested, the war's tentacles stretch into virtually every facet of life -- whether it is random drug testing in the workplace, the fear of being pulled over on the highway for driving while black, or the ineffective Drug Abuse Resistance Education, which increasing numbers of studies indicate wastes valuable classroom time and possibly goads students into experimenting.

Yet in 5,000 years of use, marijuana has never been credibly linked with a death. The Office of National Drug Control Policy figures that illegal drugs cause an estimated 9,300 deaths annually, as compared to the 430,000 estimated deaths from cigarette smoking. Yet drug czar Barry McCaffrey, who runs the Office of National Drug Control Policy, has a record $17.8 billion budget for 1999. Throw in the state and local police funding, and Adam Smith of DRCNet -- the Drug Reform Coalition Network, estimates national spending for fighting drugs is $50 billion a year.

If strength in numbers were all it takes, the battle against questionable drug policy might have had a larger policy impact by now. But toppling the governmental Goliath has proved no easy feat for this band of stoners, suits and grassroots activists.

Despite the various factions, some inroads have been made. On the West Coast, in the last four years, five states -- California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Washington -- have voted to make marijuana legal for medical purposes. In Connecticut, legislative changes have produced cutting edge treatment programs that attempt to shift the burden off of the criminal justice system.

Connecting the burners and book-benders is one of the movement's biggest challenges, agrees Steve Hager, editor-in-chief of High Times. "There has to be an event that galvanizes everybody and unifies all of the separate issues," he says. "We haven't had the spark that transforms the millions of cannabis users into cannabis activists."

The May 1 Million Marijuana March tried, rallying about 200,000 people in about 30 cities around the world. The biggest gatherings were in London, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Montreal and Chicago, says organizer Dana Beal. He wanted a million joints "a'light" in one day, he says, and he thinks it may have happened. "It was the first time we've ever had a worldwide coordinated protest," says Beal. "It was successful, but one always wishes it was more successful."

Even so, it wasn't the galvanizing moment that, say, the 1963 March on Washington and Rev. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech was for the civil rights movement. "If it is a true coalition, then it builds on consensus. It is very hard to do that with the stoners," says Hager. "It is like trying to herd a bunch of kittens to focus and unify,", he says.

The differences between the stoners and the suits are magnified by the fight over funding, especially when miscommunication and competition leads similar groups to approach the same foundations for money. Compared to the $50 billion war chest held by the temperance folks, the opposition is poor. "The overall funding for the [drug reform] movement, if you had to pin me down, in 1999, I would say it is probably $6 or $7 million," says Smith of DRCNet.

"The issue has grown faster than the funding," he adds. "The comedy is when the drug czar stands again and again to warn about the well-funded, well-organized legalization cabal. I'm not sure which is funnier, the well-funded or well-organized part."

As an insider, who arrived ill-prepared for this presentation in a 1979 Volvo I purchased from Rent-A-Wreck, I believe that Krayeske's characterization of the drug policy reform community is more accurate than McCaffrey's.

We are a loosely-knit pack of chronically underfunded lone-wolf anti-authoritarians. Finding fault with "the system", and with each other, as we search for solutions and common ground.

I can assure you that no one gets into drug policy reform for the money. What little compensation is offered to a lucky few of us is a fraction of what our time and services would normally fetch in the marketplace.

There is very little that the various reform organizations agree upon beyond the conviction that the war on drugs and drug users does more harm than good.

When a skeptic says to me, "Okay smart guy, what do suggest?", I usually refer them to the stacks of government-commissioned drug policy studies gathering dust in library basements around the world, each of which recommends and describes drug policy reform to one extent or another. Why reinvent the wheel?


At this point I would like to turn to cannabis, now one of British Columbia's most lucrative industries. I am not going to go into great detail on the relative harmlessness of cannabis because I am sure you have heard it all before. I will not spend a lot of time debunking the popular reefer madness myths.

I think that advocating cannabis policy reform with facts and figures on the relative harmlessness of cannabis is an admission of the premise that if all the myths about cannabis were true, prohibition would suddenly make sense.

When we advocate cannabis law reform from the position that cannabis is relatively harmless, or dare to tout its benefits, we are labelled "pro-drug". Our prohibitionist opponents naturally assume the moral high-ground of being "anti-drug". If drugs are bad, then the war on drugs must be good and beyond criticism.

But as counter-intuitive as it seems, prohibition is at the bottom, not the top of the regulatory scale. The more dangerous the substance, the less it makes sense to abdicate its distribution to the unregulated black market. We have more control over cornflakes than we do the so-called controlled drugs and substances.

That said, I feel as though I have heard every argument for and against cannabis law reform and I do have some favorite prohibitionist arguments I would like to share with you.

  1. The courts-communicate argument. Cannabis law reform would "send the wrong message to kids." Instead of using one of our official languages, we should communicate with irresponsible teenagers by warehousing responsible adults.

    A few years ago I interrupted my impressionable then five and seven year-old daughter's video game to get their slant on this often heard "message to kids" argument.

    ME: What are the dangers of cigarettes?

    SE: Cigarettes kill you if you smoke too much.

    ME: What are the dangers of alcohol?

    SE: Too much makes you drunk. You might have a car accident and kill somebody.

    ME: What are the dangers of candy?

    SE: Too much makes you sick. Hyper. Act silly.

    JE: And fat like Uncle Mark.

    Here my children demonstrated a good understanding of the dangers of legal substance abuse. So far so good. No mention of tooth decay so I resolved to work on that.

    ME: What are the dangers of drugs?

    SE: Too much will kill you, some are medicine, some make you sick, and some can kill you. Like the kind kids wanta give you at school.

    Notice that my daughter neglected to mention legal repercussions. I tried a different approach.

    ME: What is wrong with hitting people?

    SE: I get in trouble but I really don't care 'cause mom doesn't spank me, she only says 'don't hit your sister'.

    My daughter took my question in the context of our family, not our community. But her answer was revealing. She clearly has little respect for inadequately enforced and unenforcable rules. I resolved to work on that too. I tried once again to get her to comment on the law.

    ME: Is there anything else wrong with hitting?

    SE: It's mean, bad, and you don't go to Heaven.

    My daughter, at the tender age of seven, demonstrated an understanding of right and wrong, of moderation and excess. However, she seemed completely oblivious to the mythical message drug prohibition sends to kids.

    Matt's favorite prohibitionist arguments continued ...

  2. The oranges-are-safer-than-vitamin-C argument. Cannabis today is more potent than the grass boomers smoked at Woodstock. If beer were unavailable, beer drinkers would consume equal amounts of vodka.

    Cannabis users tend to smoke as much as they require to achieve a desired effect. Consequently, the more potent the cannabis, the less cannabis they smoke. Lung damage, attributed to heavy cannabis use, is caused by the inhalation of psychoactively inert by-products of combustion, not the cannabinoids.

  3. The vitamin-C-is-safer-than-oranges argument. Cannabis has no medicinal value. Besides, the primary active ingredient in cannabis is available to the nauseated in a more potent FDA approved and patented pill. After argument 2, this argument is hard to swallow.

  4. The gateway theory. Okay, cannabis may be less harmful than hamburger, but cannabis is a "gateway" drug. Masturbation leads to rape, lottery tickets lead to VLTs, tricycles lead to traffic accidents and the Beatles lead to Marilyn Manson. A majority of Canadian political party leaders have tried cannabis, and inhaled, so I guess cannabis leads to politics.

    The World Health Organization's investigation into the gateway effect of cannabis stated emphatically that the theory that cannabis use by adolescents leads to heroin use is the least likely of all hypotheses. Over 71 million Americans have used cannabis, yet for every 104 cannabis users, there is only one active, regular user of cocaine.

    In its 1999 report " Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base", the Institute of Medicine concluded, "There is no evidence that marijuana serves as a stepping stone on the basis of its particular physiological effect." [p. 99] "Instead, the legal status of marijuana makes it a gateway drug." [p. 99] "[I]t does not appear to be a gateway drug to the extent that it is the cause or even that it is the most significant predictor of serious drug abuse; that is, care must be taken not to attribute cause to association." [p. 101]

  5. The questions-remain argument. Granted, for over 5000 years, zero people have died from using cannabis, but if cannabis became more popular the mortality rate might multiply. Any number times zero is still zero.
  6. The Canucks-Are-Not-Dutch argument. Sure the Netherlands has lower cannabis usage rates that we do, but Canucks are not as smart as the Dutch.
  7. The chicken-and-the-egg argument. Cannabis is illegal because a majority of Canadians do not approve of cannabis because cannabis is illegal. If Canada depenalized cannabis, my granny in Winnipeg would become a pothead.
  8. The harm-threshold argument. Cannabis is relatively harmless so we must discourage cannabis use by making it more harmful. No need to prohibit alcohol and tobacco because they are harmful enough without our help.
  9. The Devil-you-know-make-work-project. If we legalize drugs the dealers will just find some other illegal way to make money.
  10. But my all time favorite argument, one I call the forbidden-quicksand argument, was made last July on the occasion of the British Medical Association rejecting yet another call for cannabis legalization. Dr Vasco Fernandes, a public health doctor in Oxford, was quoted by the BBC as saying that cannabis is a "gateway drug".

    Now, the "gateway" theory, the idea that cannabis use invariably leads to harder drugs, is nothing new. In fact, the evidence that flatly contradicts the gateway theory is getting old.

    But Dr Fernandes added a twist I had never heard before, saying. "The reason why much of the youth of today use cannabis is because it's illegal - it's a risk thing. Legalise cannabis and you will move them onto harder drugs, especially heroin."

    Fernandes seemed to be saying that, despite all the evidence and expert advice, the British should maintain cannabis prohibition and accept the tremendous costs and societal harms associated with cannabis prohibition, because it encourages teenagers to smoke cannabis and stay away from the opiates, which I assume would be less alluring if they were legalized as well. I get dizzy just thinking about it.

    Anyway, for the sake of discussion, let us temporarily accept every bad thing we have heard about cannabis. Cannabis has no medicinal value. Cannabis is as addictive and as carcinogenic as tobacco. It is as impairing as alcohol, as mutagenic as coffee, as bad for our health as sloth and obesity and the first step down the slippery slope to heroin addiction, misery and death.

    Which of the following regulatory models would you recommend we apply to this exceptionally dangerous herb?


    • We make cannabis worth its weight in gold.

    • We waive all taxes and tariffs on cannabis.

    • We hire anyone from any walk of life and criminal background to sell cannabis of unknown potency and purity on commission to anyone of any age, any time, anywhere, no questions asked.
    • We prevent manufacturers and distributors from obtaining insurance, training and legal protection or seeking judicial remedies for their disputes.
    • We arm our distributors so that they can protect their market share from competitors and protect their operations from home invaders.
    • We provide our distributors with even more dangerous substances in case they temporarily run out of cannabis.

    • We tax cannabis and direct the tax revenue toward drug research, education and treatment.
    • We license and regulate commercial cannabis growing operations.
    • We distribute cannabis through licenced, government owned and operated outlets, separating cannabis from the other illicit drugs.
    • We restrict advertising, mandate labelling and seriously consider adorning cannabis packaging with gruesome pictures of Keith Richards.

    Once we accept that the debate over cannabis policy is not about whether or not cannabis should exist, but rather, how best to minimize the harm caused by cannabis use and misuse in society, then how harmful cannabis is or is not becomes irrelevant. Prohibiting cannabis does not make it less harmful.

    The only thing we have any control over is how cannabis is distributed, and we only have so many choices there.

    • Labelling and quality control, the model we apply to other psychoactive medicinal herbs such as Valerian.
    • By prescription only, like Viagra.
    • Private enterprise, taxed, regulated and occasionally sued by the government, like tobacco.
    • Government distribution with age restrictions, the Canadian approach to alcoholic spirits.
    • Organized crime.

    Of all the alternatives, why did we pick organized crime?

    As G. Norman Collie once said, "To make certain that crime does not pay, the government should take it over and try to run it."


    Why did we prohibit cannabis in the first place? Was it ever a good idea? Ontario Justice John McCart reviewed the history of cannabis prohibition in the Crown vs. Clay, a two-year long constitutional challenge of cannabis prohibition: (18)

    "The first narcotic prohibition legislation was the 1911 Opium and Drug Act which contained no reference to marijuana. It was not until 1923 that marijuana was added to the schedule of prohibited drugs. Curiously, there was no discussion or debate in the House of Commons about its inclusion other than the bald statement, "There is a new drug in the Schedule". There was no correspondence in the Narcotic Control Division files about the addition of the new drug. One might ask why it was included because until 1937 there were no convictions for possession of marijuana and for the ensuing 20 years the annual conviction rate fluctuated between 0 and 12. There were no significant numbers of recorded offences until the late 1960's. From that time on, there has been an escalation in prosecutions for not only possession of marijuana but for trafficking.

    Although there was no evidence of a problem of marijuana use in Canada in 1923, its inclusion in the Opium and Drug Act may have been influenced by the writings of Emily Murphy, a crusading Edmonton, Alberta magistrate. In 1920 she published a series of sensational and racist articles in McLeans Magazine on the horrible effects of drug use and the deliberate debauching of the young by evil, often alien, traffickers. The articles were later expanded into a book, The Black Candle, published in 1922. Her views on marijuana were derived mainly from correspondence with U.S. enforcement officials. She quotes, for example, the Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department:

    Persons using this narcotic [marihuana], smoke the dried leaves of the plant, which has the effect of driving them completely insane. The addict loses all sense of moral responsibility. Addicts to this drug, while under its influence, are immune to pain, and could be injured without having any realization of their condition. While in this condition they become raving maniacs and are liable to kill or indulge in any form of violence to other persons, using the most savage methods of cruelty without, as said before, any sense of moral responsibility .... If this drug is indulged in to any great extent, it ends in the untimely death of its addict.

    There was absolutely no truth to any of those wild and outlandish claims. It was in this climate of irrational fear that the criminal sanctions against marijuana were enacted."

    Justice McCart also addressed more current concerns over cannabis use, saying;

    "I heard from a most impressive number of experts, among whom there was a general consensus about the effects of the consumption of marijuana. From an analysis of their evidence I am able to reach the following conclusions:

    1. Consumption of marijuana is relatively harmless compared to the so-called hard drugs including tobacco and alcohol;

    2. There exists no hard evidence demonstrating any irreversible organic or mental damage from the consumption of marijuana;

    3. That cannabis DOES cause alteration of mental functions and as such, it would not be prudent to drive a car while intoxicated;

    4. There is no hard evidence that cannabis consumption induces psychoses;

    5. Cannabis is not an addictive substance;

    6. Marijuana is not criminogenic in that there is no evidence of a causal relationship between cannabis use and criminality;

    7. That the consumption of marijuana probably does not lead to "hard drug" use for the vast majority of marijuana consumers, although there appears to be a statistical relationship between the use of marijuana and a variety of other psychoactive drugs;

    8. Marijuana does not make people more aggressive or violent;

    9. There have been no recorded deaths from the consumption of marijuana;

    10. There is no evidence that marijuana causes amotivational syndrome;

    11. Less than 1% of marijuana consumers are daily users;

    12. Consumption in so-called "de-criminalized states" does not increase out of proportion to states where there is no de-criminalization.

    13. Health related costs of cannabis use are negligible when compared to the costs attributable to tobacco and alcohol consumption.

    B.C. Justice Francis Howard elaborated later in the Crown vs Caine, a 5-year long constitutional challenge of cannabis prohibition. (19)

    The current widespread use of marihuana does not appear to have had any significant impact on the health care system of this province and, more importantly, it has not been perceived by our health care officials as a significant health concern, either provincially or nationally.

    Deputy Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Peck, confirmed that the Annual Reports from the Provincial Health Officer from 1992, 1994 and 1995 make no reference to marihuana use or marihuana health problems as causing any kind of significant health problem in this province. He noted a lack of any evidence showing that marihuana use is causing a burden of any kind on the health care system.

    The evidence establishes that any health care concerns (including financial concerns) associated with marihuana use in this country are minor compared to the social, criminal and financial costs associated with the use of alcohol and tobacco.

    Even when marihuana use was at its highest in the 1970's and 1980's, there was very little impact on the health care system from the recreational use of this drug."

    But again, for me, the relative harmlessness of cannabis is not the issue. I think we need to look more closely at the harmfulness and ineffectiveness of cannabis prohibition. Does cannabis prohibition stand up to the same close scrutiny we have applied to cannabis? How does cannabis prohibition hold up to a cost/benefit analysis?

    In his book "Confessions of a Medical Heretic", Dr. Robert S. Mendelsohn, wrote;

    "If you read the list of indications for Valium, and then read the list of side effects, you'll find that the lists are more or less interchangable! Under the indications you'll find: anxiety, fatique, depression, acute agitation, tremors, hallucinosis and skeletal muscle spasms. And under the side effects: anxiety, fatique, depression, acute hyperexcited states, tremors, hallucinations and increased muscle spasticity! I admit I don't know how to use a drug like this: what am I supposed to do if I prescribe it and the symptoms continue? Stop the drug or double the dose?"

    I understand you have already heard from a law enforcement officer on some of the problems associated with cannabis growing operations. Damaged homes, drive-by shootings, fires, home invasions, booby traps and weapons, criminal gangs and theft of electricity. Did I miss any?

    For some in the law enforcement community, worried about their budgets in a time of prosperity and falling crime rates, these problems are indications. They would like us to double the drug war dose, grant them more powers, adopt American-style mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and asset forfeiture laws. They would very much like to rekindle our waning enthusiasm for their drug war.

    To me, grow operations and the problems associated with them, are side effects, not indications for another dose of intolerance.

    B.C. Justice Francis Howard outlined just some of the side-effects of cannabis prohibition in R. v. Caine:

    "There is a consensus that there are, indeed, social and economic costs attached to the prohibition of marihuana. In summary, they are as follows:

    1. countless Canadians, mostly adolescents and young adults, are being prosecuted in the "criminal" courts, subjected to the threat of (if not actual) imprisonment, and branded with criminal records for engaging [in] an activity that is remarkably benign (estimates suggest that over 600,000 Canadians now have criminal records for cannabis related offences); meanwhile others are free to consume society's drugs of choice, alcohol and tobacco, even though these drugs are known killers.

    2. disrespect for the law by upwards of one million persons who are prepared to engage in this activity, notwithstanding the legal prohibition;

    3. distrust, by users, of health and educational authorities who, in the past, have promoted false and exaggerated allegations about marihuana; the risk is that marihuana users, especially the young, will no longer listen, even to the truth;

    4. lack of open communication between young persons and their elders about their drug use of the drug or any problems they are experiencing with it, given that it is illegal;

    5. the risk that our young people will be associating with actual criminals and hard drug users who are the primary suppliers of the drug;

    6. the lack of governmental control over the quality of the drug on the market, given that it is available only on the blackmarket;

    7. the creation of a lawless sub-culture whose only reason for being is to grow, import and distribute a drug which is not available through lawful means;

    8. the enormous financial costs associated with enforcement of the law; and

    9. the inability to engage in meaningful research into the properties, effects and dangers of the drug, because possession of the drug is unlawful."

    Studies conducted in states that have decriminalized cannabis have found that cannabis is more often than not a substitute for other recreational substances, especially alcohol. (20)

    Where cannabis prohibition is aggressively enforced, alcohol and drug-related emergency room episodes, including drug and alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents, go up. Where cannabis has been decriminalized, drug-related accidents and overdoses have gone down.

    In a 1996 study by the Independent Institute entitled, "ILLICIT DRUGS AND CRIME", economics professors Bruce Benson and David Rasmussen concluded that, "Not only has the drug war failed to reduce violent and property crime but, by shifting criminal justice resources (the police, courts, prisons, probation officers, etc.) away from directly fighting such crime, the drug war has put citizens' lives and property at greater risk." (21)

    So if there was never a good reason to prohibit cannabis in the first place and there isn't a good reason now, if there is a heavy price tag attached to perpetuating the war on cannabis, what are we getting back for our drug war dollars? What dire consequences might befall us if we ease up? Could things possibly get worse?

    Once again I would refer to Justice Howard's ruling in R. v. Caine.

    "In recent years, convictions for cannabis possession have fluctuated between 29,119 (1989) and 35,587 (1984). On average, 2,128 individuals a year have been incarcerated for possession of cannabis. Between 1977-1985, 93% of all cannabis convictions were for simple possession and the majority of all narcotics convictions were for cannabis-related offences.

    As to the relationship between existence of penal sanctions and the prevalence of marihuana consumption, it should be noted that, since 1969, the potential penalty for conviction of simple possession of marihuana on summary conviction has remained the same. Also, a jail sentence has been a much less likely prospect. Writing in 1982, Professor Boyd noted, "Since 1967 the percentage of individuals jailed for possession of marihuana dropped from 46% to 4.3%"

    Thus, in Canada, it would appear that the variations in consumption rates noted above (in particular, the decline in consumption since 1969) have occurred with no apparent statistical relationship to any increase or decrease in the severity of the law or its application.

    This phenomenon is not unique to Canada. In the Netherlands, where marihuana use has been de facto decriminalized since 1976 (the law is not enforced if the amount in question is 30 grams or less), there was some increase in usage following implementation of this policy. Unfortunately, statistics for consumption rates prior to the adoption of the non-enforcement policy were not kept; hence, it is difficult to draw any confident conclusions from the Netherlands experience.

    It is of some note, however, that the consumption rates in the Netherlands, under the non-enforcement policy, remain well below those of the United States of America which maintains the most punitive approach toward marihuana.

    Since 1987 in South Australia and 1992 in the Australian Capital Territory, an "expiation" scheme has been in place in cases of simple possession of small amounts of cannabis. Under these schemes, the offender may pay a small fine, thereby avoiding criminal conviction and record. Studies by [the] South Australian Office of Crime Statistics found that these schemes did not result in any significant increase in the number or type of persons caught using marihuana.

    Again, in those American states (eleven) which have reduced the possession of marihuana from a criminal offence to a regulatory offence (enforced by way of a ticket or fine), consumption rates do not appear to have been significantly affected. These rates are not out of line with the rates of use in comparable states where possession of marihuana is punishable by imprisonment. At times they are actually lower, suggesting that marihuana consumption rates tend to rise and fall independent of the law."

    This observation, that cannabis prohibition does not appear to have a measurable impact on prevalence and usage rates was recently echoed in the British Police Foundation's report "Drugs and the Law". (22)

    "Our conclusion is that the present law on cannabis produces more harm than it prevents. It is very expensive of the time and resources of the criminal justice system and especially of the police. It inevitably 'bears more heavily on young people in the streets of inner cities, who are also more likely to be from minority ethnic communities, and as such is inimical to police-community relations. It criminalizes large numbers of otherwise law-abiding, mainly young, people to the detriment of their futures. It has become a proxy for the control of public order; and it inhibits accurate education about the relative risks of different drugs including the risks of cannabis itself.

    Weighing these costs against the harms of cannabis, we are convinced that a better balance is needed and would be achieved if our recommendations were implemented.

    Under our proposals, the normal sanctions for offenses of cannabis possession and cultivation for personal use would be out-of-court disposals, including informal warnings, statutory cautions or a fixed fine on the model of the Scottish fiscal fine. Prosecution would be the exception, and only then would a conviction result in a criminal record.

    We understand that if the sanctions for cannabis possession and cultivation, both in the law and its enforcement, were to be substantially reduced there would be a risk that more people would use it. But the international evidence does not suggest that this is inevitable or even likely.

    Given the current widespread availability and use of cannabis, we judge that more would be gained in terms of credibility, respect for the law and the police, and accurate education messages than would be lost in potential damage to public and individual health by the control regime which we recommend. We also believe that our proposed regime would promote the targeting of enforcement resources on those drugs and activities which cause the greatest harm in line with the objectives of the national strategy. It would also accord with public perceptions of where policing priorities should lie."


    Last week I attended the Thirteenth Annual DPF Conference in Washington, D.C. One of the speakers likened our current situation to a car that has started to skid out of control. A driver's natural inclination when they start to skid is to press harder on the brakes, but as any professional driver will tell you, regaining control requires fighting one's instincts, turning into the skid and easing up on the binders.

    Another speaker at the DPF Conference asked the rhetorical question, if your daughter called you on the phone and explained that one of your grandchildren had a substance abuse problem, would you phone the police or would you try to find treatment for your loved one?

    Drug war defenders, like Barry McCaffrey, would have you believe that I want illicit drugs readily available in our corner stores and LSD vending machines in our pre-schools. My question for them is, what would motivate me to advocate such a policy?

    I too have to drive on public roadways. I have three school-aged children and I quite sincerely do not want them to have the same access to drugs that I had in the seventies.

    I stand nothing to gain from making drugs more available. I can have any drug I want delivered to my home like pizza. If I can not arrange a delivery, my 13-year-old daughter could find drugs for me at her school.

    Drug dealers and drug policy reformers are sworn enemies. We are trying to put them, and ourselves, out of business.

    Buddha once said, "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense."

    Please explore the web sites I mentioned here today. Visit the Media Awareness Project. See if you can find the link to the ecstasy recipe. Let me know if you do. Note that MAP also provides links to the ONDCP, the PDFA and other prohibitionist web sites, even though they have never provided reciprocal links back to MAP.

    Visit the online drug policy library and read up on the history of drug prohibition. It is both tragic and amusing and hard to believe unless you read it first hand. Review the Drug War Fact Book on the Common Sense for Drug Policy web site. (23)

    If nothing else, just follow drug policy issues in the popular press. Sign up for MAP's free clipping service or the DrugSense Weekly Newsletter. I trust you will soon see the need for drug policy reform as clearly as I do.

    Thanks again for inviting me here today.


    1) Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy

    2) Drug Reform Coordination Network

    3) Media Awareness Project

    4) DRCNet Drug Library

    5) Canadian Media Awareness Project

    6) Recovering Our Honour / by Gil Puder

    7) DrugSense/MAP Access Statistics

    8) Grit MP Pillitteri Out Of Touch

    9) Common Sense for Drug Policy

    10) DrugSense

    11) The November Coalition

    12) Family Watch

    13) Cannabis Culture Magazine

    14) Canadian E-Mail Discussion List

    15) The Vancouver Compassion Club

    16) The Drug Legalization Movement in the U.S.

    17) Pot Politics

    18) R. v. Clay, (August 14, 1997)

    19) R. v. Caine, (April 20, 1998)

    20) Less Marijuana, More Alcohol?

    21) Illicit Drugs and Crime

    22) Drugs and the Law

    23) Drug War Factbook