History Preceding

Science, public consciousness, and government legislation have finally caught up with the idea that cannabis is not nearly as harmful as once argued. It was recently announced that Canada would become the first G7/G20 country to legalize recreational use cannabis for adults, with sales set to begin in October.

The journey to legalization has been one especially visible since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office. However, the history of cannabis legalization within Canada has been going on for much longer than many realize, with multiple factors contributing to the progression we are all witnessing today.

In 1923, cannabis was added to the schedule of banned substances; a somewhat peculiar decision at the time, as few people in Canada had ever heard of, let alone seen cannabis. Nevertheless, it was banned under the Narcotics and Drug Act Amendment Bill in 1923 (with virtually no parliamentary or public debate).

It took about 10 years for cannabis to gain popularity in mainstream culture, and with increased popularity came an increased number of arrests. At the time, the penalty for simple possession was a $1,000 fine and up to six months in prison (that would be $7,660 today – a pricey penalty for first-time offenders). Neil Boyd, Chair of the Board of Directors at the International Centre for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Justice Policy and professor of Criminology at Simon Fraser University, highlights that Canada “had 1,000 convictions for cannabis possession in 1966”, and most lead to jail time.

Despite the heavy penalties, charges and convictions kept increasing. It was obvious the public were openly disregarding the law, and Boyd says, “something had to be done. Canada’s jails simply didn’t have the capacity to hold tens of thousands of cannabis users”.

In response, the Pierre Trudeau Liberal government launched the National Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs in 1969. Otherwise known as the Le Dain Commission Inquiry – named after it’s chairman, Dean Gerald Le Dain – the commission was put together to investigate the reasons why people were so quick to disregard the law, and present Congress with a solution.

Over three years, the Le Dain Commission performed nationwide research that consisted of public hearings in 27 cities. Within these hearings, the Commission heard testimonies from 639 groups and individuals; 295 organizations presented briefs, of which the Commission heard 43; and 212 individuals made submissions, of which 89 were heard.

After speaking with people who used cannabis, the Commission “knew that for almost all consumers it did not pose risks that are remotely similar to those posed by the consumption of alcohol or tobacco,” Boyd adds.

In the final report, published in 1972, the Commission presented its findings along with a solution – to decriminalize cannabis use. It was their belief the criminal penalties for cannabis possession were not justified; therefore it was believed that cannabis should be moved off the Narcotics and Drug Act and moved to the Food and Drugs Act.

Compared to previous actions taken in legislation, the Le Dain Commission thought far outside the box, and it’s not surprising that the research got a ton of press attention on a national scale. It even caught the attention of John Lennon and Yoko Ono while they were in Montreal for ‘Bed-Ins for Peace’ in 1969. Commenting on the actions of the Le Dain Commission, Lennon said, “We honestly think a place like Canada looks like the only hope, because the only hope or help we’ve had is from Canada… this is the opportunity for Canada to lead the world”.

Despite the time, funds, and effort that was put into the Le Dain Commission, when the solution was presented to Congress, the report was tabled on the grounds of legal moralism. Legal moralism allows laws to be enforced based on the collective morals of a society. And if we think about societal morals in the context of the 1970s, this ruling is not very surprising.

The biggest issue with the final report was that it never officially excluded any substance, meaning although the inquiry was prompted by, and surrounded cannabis use, those arguing against the Commission could blow the suggestions out of proportion by arguing the Commission was lobbying for all drugs to be decriminalized. A problematic argument, because this was the same year United States President Richard Nixon launched the Drug Enforcement Administration, after declaring the War On Drugs in 1971. In this context, it is not shocking that Canada, allies of the U.S., did not want to decriminalize something the States was cracking down on.

Despite the seemingly minimal effect the Le Dain Commission had in its time, as Boyd points out, “it’s important to note that over the past 30 years there has been a continuing interest in reforming cannabis law, typically framed around decriminalization initiatives. I think this government deserves a lot of credit for recognizing that decriminalization would not be sufficient”. Simply decriminalizing cannabis possession would not have done enough, and would need to be followed by more tentative steps.

Even though immediate results were not seen, the Le Dain Commission began open conversations surrounding the use of cannabis. The public hearing and final report presented cannabis as something people choose to use in the interest of their well-being, separating it from classifications harder substances have been assigned. Today, as these contradictions finally surface in public consciousness, the Le Dain Commission should be remembered for playing a large role in pushing these beliefs forward.

Story by Sophie Naprawa
Photo: The Canadian Press/Peter Bregg

The preceding is for informational purposes only. It is not meant to condone the use or consumption of cannabis. For more information, please refer to our disclaimer

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