Pubdate: Sat, 26 Dec 2015
Source: National Post (Canada)
Copyright: 2015 Canwest Publishing Inc.
Author: Ian MacLeod
Page: A10

Pot shots


By 1971, marijuana's scent hung over much of Canada. Some 1.5 million
folks had taken at least one drag on a joint. Hundreds of thousands
were regularly firing up, grooving to Three Dog Night and learning
from the leaked Pentagon Papers that the U.S. administration had lied
about the Vietnam War.

Convictions for simple pot possession exploded: from 431 in 1967 to
5,399 in 1970 and 8,389 in 1971. More than half were against otherwise
law-abiding baby boomers under 21 who would now carry criminal records
along with their university degrees.

In May 1972, a federal commission of inquiry into the non-medical use
of drugs handed an audacious recommendation to the government of
then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, whose flower-child bride,
Margaret, was smoking weed behind the backs of her RCMP bodyguards.

After two years of public hearings, including testimony from John
Lennon and Yoko Ono, the Le Dain commission said laws against simple
possession of marijuana and hashish should be abolished in the face of
a blossoming social attitude among a growing minority of people that
grass was relatively harmless. It stopped short of saying the stuff
should be made legally available and consumed.

The heavy-handed use of criminal law to suppress the youthful pursuit
of a buzz that offended many people's sense of justice and threatened
to erode the moral authority of the law, the commission said.

"There can be no doubt that the law on the books is at extreme
variance with the facts. It is simply not a feasible policy in the
long run."

Forty-three years later, recognition of pot's reality has arrived.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government will do what his
father's would not by legitimizing simple possession of recreational
marijuana and regulating its sale.

In the meantime, the 426-page Cannabis Report of the Le Dain
commission, headed by Gerald Le Dain, then-dean of Osgoode Hall Law
School, remains an insightful guide, even if some of its psychedelic
language is demode. ("Cannabis" denotes both marijuana and hashish.)

The chief question back then was whether there was a well-founded
social concern about cannabis's non-medical use, and if so, how that
concern should express itself in social policy. The issue turned on
the question of whether marijuana was harmful.

Le Dain and his four fellow commissioners concluded the developing
brains of adolescents could be damaged by cannabis and singled that
out as the most serious issue in the legalization debate.

The inquiry found no evidence to support the decades of "reefer
madness" sensationalism that followed Canada's criminalization of
marijuana in 1923 without any apparent public debate, scientific basis
or real social urgency.

Over the years, stiffer penalties for opium, heroin and other heavy
narcotics had been automatically applied to cannabis. And though a
Senate committee examining drug trafficking in 1955 reported no
domestic marijuana problems beyond a few isolated seizures from
foreigners and returning Canadian tourists, the maximum sentence for
trafficking and possession for the purpose of trafficking was doubled
to 14 years. Then, in 1961, trafficking and possession for the purpose
offences became liable to life imprisonment - just as the leading edge
of the baby boom entered teenagehood. Simple possession, as an
indictable offence, was punishable by up to seven years in prison. A
summary conviction carried a maximum six months in jail and/or a
$1,000 first-time fine and $2,000 for subsequent convictions. (The
average annual Canadian wage then was about $5,700.)

Legislators had no inkling of the dilemma their legislation would
cause in the late '60s by disproportionately targeting middle-class
kids and young adults looking to get high. It took another eight years
for the social and political consequences to waft up to Parliament
Hill and, in 1969, spark the four-year Le Dain inquiry.

"The attempt to enforce the prohibition =C2=85 is bringing the criminal l
to bear against thousands of young people with very serious
consequences for their lives," Le Dain later declared.

The growing costs for police, prosecutors and the courts was another
concern, as was the hit-and-miss prosecutorial assault on recreational

The law, the commission revealed, was catching less than one per cent
of a conservative estimate of the total number of users.

"A law which can only be enforced in a haphazard and accidental manner
is an unjust law," it proclaimed.

It recommended laws against trafficking and distribution be softened
but kept on the books to restrict availability. And it called for what
became a new law against the cultivation of marijuana for the purpose
of trafficking.
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