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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Cannabis Control Policy

 Cannabis Control Policy: A Discussion Paper

 Health Protection Branch

Department of National Health and Welfare

January 1979

The Sociolegal Consequences of Enforcement

The negative consequences of criminalizing cannabis are easy to recite but extremely difficult to quantitatively assess. The Le Dain Commission enumerated ten such "social costs" in its Cannabis report. (Le Dain, 1972: 292-298) The first and "most serious" was the effect of a criminal conviction, particularly on young offenders. It is well established that the formal application of criminal sanctions has a stigmatizing effect on those exposed to the process, although, according to a Canadian study, this experience has almost no deterrent influence on cannabis users. (Erikson, 1978)

Other social costs of criminally prohibiting cannabis mentioned by the Le Dain Commission include: encouraging the development of an illicit market; obliging persons to engage in criminal activities or with criminal types to supply themselves with cannabis; exposing people to more hazardous drugs by forcing them to have contact with traffickers dealing in a variety of psychotropic products; promoting the development of a deviant subculture; undermining the credibility of drug education programs; the use of extraordinary and disreputable methods of enforcement; creating disrespect for law and law enforcement generally; diverting law enforcement resources from more important tasks; and adversely affecting the morale of law enforcement authorities. Additional social costs include the provision of an economic base for organized crime, health risks flowing from the consumption of unregulated, herbicide-contaminated products, the inhibition of research into therapeutic uses of cannabis, the erosion of civil liberties, and the criminal socialization of young persons through custodial sentences.

The Commission also noted that occupational and professional disqualifications and numerous automatic and discretionary legal liabilities result from a cannabis conviction. Two studies sponsored by the Health Protection Branch detail these specific negative consequences. (Leon, 1978; McKee, 1978)

A convicted cannabis offender is at a distinct disadvantage in any subsequent criminal proceedings: his past criminal record may be used to establish grounds for keeping him in custody prior to trial; it may influence the Crown to proceed by way of indictment rather than summary conviction; it may be raised to impeach his credibility if he takes the stand; it may automatically result in a more severe sentence as dictated by various criminal statutes; it may be introduced by the prosecutor in speaking to sentence and appears to be an extremely important factor in shaping judicial sentencing discretion; and it will likely influence the classification process in prison, and the granting and terms of parole.

An individual convicted of a cannabis offence may be denied entry into Canada as a visitor, or as an immigrant. Once in the country, a visitor, immigrant or even permanent resident may be deported if convicted of a cannabis offence, even simple possession. Discussions with immigration officials in the London area indicated that these harsh provisions may be tempered by various saving sections in the Immigration Act S.C. 1976-77, c.52 and by the immigration officers' exercise of formal and informal discretionary powers. It was suggested that an otherwise law-abiding permanent resident would not be deported if convicted of a minor cannabis offence. The Citizenship Act S.C. 1974-75-76, c.108 provides that citizenship cannot be granted to a person who has been convicted of an indictable offence three years prior to the date of application or during the period between the application date and the date he otherwise would have been granted citizenship.

Entry into the United States and the United Kingdom may be denied to an individual who has been convicted of a cannabis offence. Officials of both countries indicated that the decision to permit or deny entry would be based on various factors including the reason entry was sought, the date of the conviction, other convictions, and humanitarian considerations. It appears that a Canadian citizen visiting either country on a holiday would not be denied entry merely because he had been convicted of cannabis possession in the distant past.

Many federal acts contain broad employment criteria which could be used to deny a job to an individual with a record for a cannabis offence. The Criminal Records Act and Human Rights Act together reduce the possibility that a pardoned offender's record would even become known to a federal department or agency. With the possible exception of jobs requiring a security clearance, these Acts should prevent discrimination against pardoned offenders in hiring by federal departments and agencies.

An informal survey of federal and Ontario government personnel and security officers was conducted in the Health Protection Branch in the summer of 1978. It would seem that, unless their cannabis possession offences were detected at the place of work or resulted in a gaol sentence, government employees would be unlikely to be suspended. Any disciplinary action taken against an employee for the sole reason that he or she had been convicted of possession would warrant lodging a grievance with the Anti-Discrimination Branch of the Public Service Commission. In cases of trafficking-related offences, the picture is less clear. Cannabis offences, however, even simple possession, can result in the suspension or cancellation of security clearances or can be considered grounds for refusal to issue one to a prospective employee. This could be a major stumbling-block to obtaining a job or promotion in the public service.

Employment opportunities in the regulated professions and licensed occupations may be adversely affected by a conviction for a cannabis offence. The provincial legislation governing admission and disciplining of professions usually contains general criteria requiring an applicant or member to be of "good character" and refrain from "unprofessional", "dishonorable" or "improper" conduct. Such broad criteria apply to lawyers, architects, engineers, surveyors, accountants, health care professionals, dental technicians, psychologists, veterinarians and funeral directors. The licensed occupations are governed by similar legislation and include an even broader range of careers such as ambulance drivers, auctioneers, real estate agents, police officers, and operators of nursing homes, taverns, private hospitals, and private vocational schools. Primary and secondary school teachers are particularly vulnerable because of the sensitivity of their positions to public scrutiny. In some recent cases (Vancouver Province, Dec. 1, 1977; Globe & Mail, June 30,1978), school boards have taken disciplinary action against teachers convicted of cannabis offences, despite the fact that the court granted them discharges. They were removed from contact with students and given administrative duties to perform or otherwise demoted.

Given the generality of the "good moral character" criterion and the discretionary nature of the admitting, licensing and disciplining powers, it is impossible to predict the consequences of a cannabis conviction. In fact, this element of uncertainty itself is one of the most significant negative consequences of a cannabis conviction.

Some of these social and legal costs are inherent in the criminal law process. Others are a product of our current approach to non-medical drug use in general and cannabis in particular. Although impossible to quantify, these are all real costs which must be balanced against the benefits of maintaining the criminal prohibition in reaching any reform decision.

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