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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
Volume I - General Orientation

Chapter 3- Our Guiding Principles

Science or approximate knowledge


The public is generally willing to leave the choice of control methods to the interaction between health care experts and government agencies because they recognize that the drug is being used essentially for their well-being and they rely on expert knowledge to decide the best way to protect that.


Therefore, in formulating social policy on non-medical use, you must consider not only at the harm done by the law or at the harm done by the drug, but as far as possible a full cost/benefit analysis of drug use and the control measures, and any change in control measures that you may contemplate. This is a matter for all of society to decide - not for experts to decide as a matter of scientific knowledge. [1][15]


From the very outset of the Committee’s proceedings, we have been aware that knowledge - even science-based, is not of itself a sufficient basis for the development of public policy on illegal drugs, in particular cannabis. One might be tempted to think that a Special Committee on Illegal Drugs - in this case, cannabis - should base its conclusions and recommendations solely on knowledge. However, no amount of knowledge alone could determine public policy. There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, the process of knowledge development is ongoing. This process is by definition a continuing study of the unknown. The pursuit of knowledge, in view of the scale and complexity of the task, is always approximate - or, as the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss would have put it, cobbled-together. To search for knowledge is to acknowledge our ignorance of fundamental questions, which by definition remain open-ended. According to Professor de Koninck:


[Translation] It is appropriate for us to celebrate the ignorance we have at last discovered because it is now part of our known ignorance (ordinary ignorance, in the classical vocabulary), as opposed to unknown ignorance (twofold ignorance) - thanks to neuroscience, oceanography, astrophysics, but also to depth psychology, the history of religion (to cite only two of the advanced "humanities") and to other disciplines which have particularly progressed in our era. We must celebrate it with the wonder and puzzlement which are still the necessary prerequisite of all discovery. [2][16]


This situation might seem ironic, since never at any other time has such a wealth of information been produced – in all areas of human culture but also specifically on the issue of drugs – than in the modern era. So much knowledge has been gained in fact, that experts, such as economists, sociologists, criminologists, psychologists, and geneticists have become necessary players in the whole public policy justification process. It is only thanks to the ability of a team of scientists to successfully influence decision-makers that the greenhouse effect and the global warming phenomena have been acknowledged as real and that action has been taken to protect our environment. Governments' macro-economic decisions will be explained to the public on the nightly news by a senior economist. Where urban violence occurs or a serial killer is on the rampage, psychologists and criminologists are brought in to explain what is taking place, or to justify the thrust of criminal policy. The mass production of information and reference to experts in policy development give the public decision-making process at least credibility, if not legitimacy. Consequently, people who feel disenfranchized or even disillusioned by what they perceive as the disparity between the real world and the world presented to them in the media, will feel less inclined to challenge political decisions which are based on the “authority of knowledge”. Information is becoming knowledge, the learned are becoming experts and politicians, (who are increasingly allergic to independent reflection on principles and fundamental issues), have come to rely on this handy army of “experts”, who are ever ready to proffer advice.

However, information is not knowledge. Indeed, knowledge cannot be reduced to mere information. The Internet teams with information, but no one would dare contend that all of it could be deemed knowledge.

Secondly, the knowledge production process is fragmented and, like modern life itself, has difficulty addressing the issue of meaning. No better knowledge is produced with the addition of academic disciplines all studying issues through the lens of their own field of expertise than is produced when one of these disciplines works in isolation. The promotion of inter-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary approaches will remain as meaningless as calls for a social “partnership”, until there is genuine resolve to grasp the issues of meaning and comprehension. Prestigious institutes such as NIDA may have huge research budgets and conduct research, which in itself, is both fascinating and useful, but they function as if their sole goal were to demonstrate the bio-psychological mechanisms of “drug addiction” and the dangerous abuse that results from the consumption of “drugs of abuse”, as they call them.

However, the reasons for particular practices cannot be reduced to the sum of their constituent parts, or a jumble of re-enactments. Remarkable knowledge about cell mechanisms and genetics does not provide answers to the ethical and political issues raised by cloning. In the same way, knowledge about the mechanisms of the atom and nuclear fission did not provide answers to the issue of the manufacture and use of nuclear weapons. The highly abstract and math-based discipline of economic “science” is so far removed from reality that it is no longer able to explain the gulf that exists between nations or between extravagant wealth and human misery.

Researchers seem more concerned with mathematical equations and abstractions, and as a result, fail to ask fundamental questions. Their fields of knowledge are patchy and highly compartmentalized and there often remains a confusion between knowledge, information and technology. To ask fundamental questions, is to link issues and to re-acknowledge the complex nature of these issues in an attempt to identify the underlying reasons. There are on-going debates between scientists and philosophers over linking issues and over the shift towards an integrated knowledge base of human beings.[3][17]


Thirdly, this raises the whole issue of the so-called “learned idiot” “experts”. 


[Translation] Idiots is the right word (from the Latin idiota, meaning "ignorant person", borrowed from the Greek idiôtês, of the same meaning, as opposed to pepaideumenos, "cultivated man"). What is unfortunate is that their unearned reputation as experts extends all the more the influence of this "idiocy" in societies such as ours where "science" exercises a magic power and "that power appears increasingly legitimized by 'learned' experts," as Jacques Testart notes. "Indeed, the expert provides reassurances and citizens are reluctant to decry the absurdity or cynicism of a political decision approved by 'the most qualified experts'. [4][18]


We are not trying to take issue with science but rather to challenge the difficulty scientists have in reflecting on their research. It is one thing to conduct cutting-edge research on specific issues, but it is quite another to claim to use the resultant fragmented knowledge to provide “explanations”. It is yet another to attempt to provide answers that science is quite simply not able to provide. It is one thing to conduct studies of the behaviour of laboratory rats, which have been administered a dose of Delta 9-THC (the principal active component in cannabis), but it is quite another to claim that this type of experiment is useful in understanding cannabis use and its effects on human beings. It is still another issue to contend that this research can provide an answer to cannabis public policy-related issues.

Drug use is a social action and forms part of a particular individual’s behavioural pattern and as such, cannot be reduced to mere neuro-psychological mechanisms. It might be useful to understand the mechanisms involved but this knowledge alone will not explain the reasons underlying drug use in our society.


Fourthly, the colonization of the mind by the authority of experts-acting as mediators between politicians and the community – equates to the dangerous colonization of social sciences by natural sciences. This is nothing new. This process began in the 19th century but significantly accelerated during the 20th century. The most significant manifestation of this process is the ever-closer links between psychology and neuro-science. Consequently, a transposition of methods and problem-approach systems has taken place. As a result, human sciences have now taken on a quantitivist-reductionist approach, which in turn has led to a knowledge crisis. A sample of 100 young people chosen at random to undergo a battery of psychological tests aimed at determining why they use cannabis will provide apparently serious anecdotal research and a series of correlations, which are unlikely to reveal the reasons behind drug use.

In some academic and decision-making circles, it is fashionable to refer to “evidence-based” policies. By this, we mean policies based on “scientific” evidence of approaches that work. One of the most striking examples of this approach was the Crime Reduction Strategy implemented in the United Kingdom in 1998 by the then newly-elected Labour government. Under this scheme, considerable money was earmarked to support those crime prevention initiatives that studies had shown to be effective with the goal of reducing various types of crime by a specified percentage over a five-year period.[5][19] Despite this scheme, the United Kingdom is currently facing a crime “crisis”, in part because crime rates have risen, and the Crime Reduction Strategy is a shambles.


It is tempting to ask how the outcome could have been any different. Social engineering strategies in areas such as population control and crime prevention date back to the 19th century and have rarely provided tangible results. These initiatives, which are built on one or two “formulae”, themselves drawn from a small number of controlled experiments, do not take account of the complex nature of the modern world, with its ever-growing, increasingly fluid and intangible interdependent and multi‑level relationships. Is it in an attempt to flee this reality that we seek refuge in the mathematical abstraction of correlations between supposedly predictive variables?

The Committee’ report - especially the second part - has put great emphasis on research-based knowledge. This focus is an attempt to do justice to the knowledge that has been developed over the past few decades. We considered it important and indeed necessary to give it detailed consideration. Indeed, the Committee recommends that the drive for knowledge acquisition on specific issues that we deem to be important be continued.

We do not claim, however, to have answered the fundamental question of why people consume psychoactive substances, such as alcohol, drugs or medication. We were indeed surprised, given the quantity of studies conducted each year on drugs, that this area has not been covered. It is almost as if the quest for answers to technical questions has caused science to lose sight of the basic issue!

Scientific knowledge cannot replace either reflection or the political decision-making process. It supports the process. Indeed, we consider that its greatest contribution to public drug policy is in doing so. Our guiding principle is that science, which must continue to explore specific areas of key issues and reflect on overarching questions, supports the public policy-development process. No more, but no less.


[1][15]  Evidence by Dr. Harold Kalant, professor at the University of Toronto, before the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, Senate of Canada, first session of the thirty-seventh Parliament, issue no 4, pages 69 and 78.

[2][16]  De Koninck, T., (2002) op. cit., page 25.

[3][17]  Based on a very eloquent exchange between a philosopher and a neurobiologist: Changeux, J.P. et P. Ricoeur (1998) What makes us Think (translation of: Ce qui nous fait penser. La nature et la règle. Paris: Odile Jacob), pages 77-78

[4][18]  De Koninck, T. (2002) op. cit., page 6.

[5][19]  Chapter 20 discusses this issue in greater detail since the strategy includes a drug-related initiative.

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