The Senate's Report on Canadian
Cannabis Policy: Leading the Way to Rational, Evidence-Based Drug
Last week the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs issued
its final report on the status of cannabis in Canada. This report culminates
two years of intensive study with the goal of assessing the
effectiveness/rationality of current policy, and considering alternatives based
on best available information. The Committee's overall conclusion is that
current policy (prohibition) is both unjustified and ineffective, and that
controlled legalization would be a better option for Canada at this time. This
document is intended as a reaction to the Senate report from the perspective of
the John Howard Society of Canada.
We believe that the Senate should be commended on its open,
fact-based analysis of this important social issue. We are firmly convinced of
the need for "evidence-based" analyses of social policy, and are impressed with
the frankness and objectivity that the Committee employed as it confronted the
multitude of myths that stand behind our current policies on cannabis. In
accordance with our goal of "just, effective, and human responses to the causes
and consequences of crime" we feel that the Senate report accurately assesses
some of the most important problems associated with the prohibition of
cannabis, and suggests meaningful and rational changes that would improve our
ability to deal with this and other illicit drugs. Highlights of the report
- A frank discussion of the philosophical struggle between
promoting individual autonomy and enabling social control that sits mostly
unconsciously behind the issue of illicit drugs. We fully agree with the
Committee's statements that: "The goal of governance is freedom, not control"
(p. 11), and "Only offences involving significant direct danger to others
should be matters of criminal law" (p. 12).
- Rejection of the "gateway theory" which says that use of
cannabis leads to use of harder drugs like cocaine and heroin (p. 15). The
gateway theory has long been used by those favoring the strict control of
cannabis as justification for prohibition.
- Acknowledgment that the lack of up-to-date epidemiological
data on cannabis use in Canada hinders the development of good evidence-based
drug policy (p. 14).
- A recognition that the use of cannabis itself is not a cause
of delinquency or violence (p. 15).
- The development of a more sophisticated "continuum" of
cannabis use that includes experimental, recreational, at-risk, and excessive
use. This moves away from the less discerning belief that "all use is abuse"
which sits behind the failed prohibitionist paradigm and facilitates our
ability to focus rehabilitative efforts on users in the at-risk and excessive
use categories (pgs. 16, 26, and 44).
- A recognition that the consensual nature of drug crimes,
coupled with the long standing monopoly on drug policymaking and implementation
enjoyed by the "bureaucratic enforcement complex," has led to the dangerous
expansion of enforcement powers that can threaten the basic Charter rights of
Canadian citizens (p. 24).
- Acknowledgment that prevention is superior to enforcement;
that we have generally under-funded prevention in favor of enforcement; that
the focus of prevention should be self empowerment not control; and that using
enforcement related assets (i.e., police) to deliver preventative drug
education is counterproductive (p. 26).
- Recognition that treatment is more effective and less costly
than incarceration (p. 28).
- Development of a systematic cost/benefit analysis of current
cannabis laws that suggest that the costs associated with enforcement
($300M/yr) probably greatly outweigh the social costs (externalities)
associated with cannabis use (p. 29).
- Recognition that "The international drug control conventions
are, at least with respect to cannabis, an utterly irrational restraint that
has nothing to do with scientific or public health considerations" (p. 30), and
"The international conventions constitute a two-tier system that regulates the
synthetic substances produced by the North and prohibits the organic substances
produced by the South, while ignoring the real danger the substances present
for public health (p. 32).
- Recognition of the harms that have been perpetrated on those
convicted of simple cannabis possession, and the call for amnesty for all those
who have been convicted of this offense in the past (p. 46).
We find it encouraging that many of the findings of the Senate's
report on Canadian cannabis policy support the basic position of the John
Howard Society of Canada. Specifically, that overly punitive responses to crime
often do more harm than good, especially in the long term. The Senate's report
will be an invaluable tool as we attempt to demonstrate this fact to mainstream
society and fashion lasting solutions to major social issues.