In 1982, the Globe and Mail‘s Ottawa bureau chief, John Gray, wrote a scathing critique on the Trudeau Liberal government’s failure to ease the cannabis laws. Most troubling to him were the hundreds of thousands of arrests that continued unabated while the government promised change.
The decade the Government has spent promising change has seen more than 300,000 Canadians acquire criminal records under the terms of a law they’ve been told all along should be changed.
Canadians find themselves in a similar situation today, as the younger Trudeau promises change yet insists all the while that the arrests continue.
Ottawa promises but fails to deliver: The Marijuana predicament
Globe and Mail, January 26, 1982
By John Gray
Mr. Gray is Ottawa bureau chief of The Globe and Mail.
AFTER MORE THAN a decade of promises – and after the conviction of more than 300,000 Canadians – the Liberal Govenment still hesitates to reduce the harshness of the law on marijuana.
Despite the Government’s solemn commitment in the last throne speech, less than two years ago, to do something about Canadian marijuana legislation, it now appears the issue may be conveniently shoved aside and forgotten.
Solicitor-General Robert Kaplan insists the Government’s stand is firm, “but there are a lot of other priority items as well, which might be easier to move.” Thus, he seems to have joined a long list of Trudeau ministers whose determination to cushion marijuana penalties has been deflected towards less politically controversial reforms.
The Solicitor-General says political sensitivity isn’t the reason his reforming ardor has cooled somewhat. Instead, he explains, “it’s the anticipated public reaction to the easing of penalties.”
In fact, anticipating adverse public reaction has crippled a good many Government promises since Pierre Trudeau first came to power with a whiff of reform in so many areas. Yet, none has suffered more than the repeated commitment to change a law that successive ministers have judged to be sadly misguided.
The Trudeau Government’s concern about marijuana first surfaced formally in May, 1969, when John Munro, then minister of health and welfare and now Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, announced an inquiry to look into the whole spectrum of the non-medical use of drugs. Technically, that scope included alcohol, but for more important were such substances as LSD, speed (methamphetamine) and, above all, marijuana.
As convictions increased, politicians took more notice
By 1969, the Cabinet knew there was a political problem. Ministers were less concerned with the more exotic drugs; they didn’t know many people who dropped acid, but they sure knw a lot about kids who were smoking dope.
In the flowering of the late sixties, middle-class parents, politicians among them, discovered with a shock that their children were turning on to more than beer and skittles. And for their rebellion, some of those kids were going to jail.
Through the 1950s and the early 1960s, marijuana had been a rare weed, most often associated with jazz musicians. It was an unusual year that registered more than two dozen convictions for possession of the plant with the spiky leaves. Suddenly, the number of convictions began to double and then triple. By 1969, more than 3,000 Canadians were convicted for possession of marijuana or hashish, a crime which could earn them up to seven years in prison.
The Narcotics Control Act was a product of the days when there was little understanding of hallucinogens, and was understandably severe. Mere possession of marijuana could lead to imprisonment; importing any amount meant a minimum of seven years in jail. Those penalties were not imposed to the maximum, but they were there. Worst of all, whatever the penalty, conviction meant a criminal record.
By the end of the sixties, the days of Reefer Madness had long since passed. The LeDain inquiry into the non-medical use of drugs estimated that 1.5 million Canadians had used marijuana or hashish. Although members of the commission were divided in their judgement, they were united in their insistence that the law on cannabis – marijuana and hashish – should be softened considerably. The majority wanted no prohibition against either possession or cultivation for personal use.
An uncertain Government wanted nothing of that, but John Munro promised that there would be legislation within a few months to transfer cannabis to the Food and Drugs Act, away from the much more severe strictures of the Narcotics Control Act.
That was in 1970, and was the first of a succession of Government promises. Mr. Munro repeated his promise formally two years later; indeed, he issued a written statement and called it a policy on cannabis. Two years later, his successor, Marc Lalonde, went so far as to produce legislation to go with the policy, and he said, like Charles Dickens, that the law was an ass.
That legislation was introduced in the Senate, and the senators made valiant attempts to improve it, held long hearings and then watched as the Government quietly let the bill die on the order paper.
By 1978, with cannabis convictions running at the rate of more than 35,000 a year, Mr. Lalonde said he really would like to have new legislation to reduce marijuana penalties. He said it was being studied on an urgent basis and, citing the number of convictions, commented: “You have to ask yourself serious questions about that particular law and whether it is really responding to the values of the society in which you live and whether you can continue to have a law that is really rejected by such a large number of your citizens.”
When the Conservatives were in power, David Crombie held the health and welfare portfolio He, like his Liberal predecessors, promised legislation but produced nothing.
A year later, with the Liberals back in power, Solicitor-General Kaplan was making all the right noises. He even made a speech to his Don Valley riding association in which he outlined the familiar position. “I personally feel it inappropriate that any Canadians caught with a small amount of marijuana for personal use should face the embarrassment and indignity of fingerprints and photographs, the possibility of imprisonment and the stigma of a criminal record. Clearly, something must be done.”
However inappropriate the law, however clear the need for action, Mr. Kaplan reflects the tensions and uncertainties afflicting his ministerial and caucus colleagues. Like them, he still worries about “anticipated public reaction.” Most of his prepared speech that night was devoted to reassuring people who might get the wrong idea, who might think that everything was going to be made legal, that the Government was going to break new ground – that Liberals favored dope.
Public opinion polls show people want a new law
That same thinking persuaded some minister last month to take the proposal for marijuana legislation to the provincial attorneys-general. Perhaps they could be roped into taking some of the blame for such libertine reforms.
Predictably, the provincial ministers were as alarmed as the federal ministers, even though people such as Mr. Kaplan can cite public opinion surveys which show that two-thirds of Canadians want lighter penalties or no penalties for possession of marijuana.
The result is indecision, so that today Mr. Kaplan can say: “I don’t know what we’ll be taking back to Cabinet. But if we move forward on it, it’s going to have to be without unanimous provincial support, no matter what we do.”
Although he acknowledges that Ottawa is not always so scrupulous about getting provincial approval, Mr. Kaplan talks of the need for a unified approach in this instance. However, he says nothing about getting the provinces to share the adverse public reaction.
As Mr. Kaplan explains it, the Government recognizes the commitment to the reform of the law on marijuana, but that commitment is anything but a precise policy.
That is just about the way things were more than 10 years ago. Today, the vast majority of offenders are fined – only about 10 per cent receive jail terms – but the decade the Government has spent promising change has seen more than 300,000 Canadians acquire criminal records under the terms of a law they’ve been told all along should be changed.