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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

What should public policy on illegal drugs consist of, policy here being understood in the strict sense of the word, as government through public debate and not party politics? As we are part of the Senate of Canada and therefore of Parliament, and having legislative authority, one might wonder why we ask ourselves the question. As legislators, are we not guided by the principles of good government, that is to say by public interest? In fact, what is public interest, and how is it determined? Does our position as Senators give us the de facto ability to say what is, or what should be, in the interest of Canada? We do not believe so. 

When faced with social issues such as illegal drugs, we are like all Canadians, struggling with our beliefs, our knowledge, our values, our doubts and our myths. Our special access to some one hundred expert witnesses, our reading of numerous research papers and our discussions with dozens of people across the country have forced us to confront our preconceived ideas and images about drugs and to compare them with those of “others”, and if not to change them, at least to refine them along the way. However, this is not sufficient to determine what is in the public interest. Experts, no more so than the many citizens we heard from, do not determine what is in the public interest. Studies show only the most superficial aspects of what Canadians think. In addition, when polls that are more sophisticated provide us with a more in-depth picture of public opinion, we will be no further ahead in trying to decide on the direction that public policy on cannabis should take. This is primarily because the greater good is not determined by polling to see which way the winds of public opinion are blowing, and also because, as is the case with our personal opinions, public opinion relies on unverified information, on preconceived ideas that are sometimes biased, and on values that are not always clear. 

We heard quite frequently that the public policy decisions should be based on the future of our children, on the kind of society in which we wish to live and that we wish to leave them. Over the last two decades, Canadian society has implemented costly anti‑smoking programs. Do we want to be in conflict with these by allowing the smoking of cannabis? Cannabis is a psychoactive substance that can impair certain cognitive abilities linked to learning in young people. Do we want to send the message that it is okay for them to take drugs?

Others said that the fundamental values of Canadian society, values of respect for people’s rights and freedoms, of tolerance and openness towards diversity, were compromised by existing legislation on cannabis. They added that these laws are no longer in step with society, reflecting an inter-generational conflict between adults and youth, they bring about more harmful consequences than good, and on top of being ineffective they are iniquitous. 

This is an issue of values, therefore, which opposes various ideas about public health, of community health, meaning both the physical well-being of people as well as of the entire community, of its moral fiber as well as the model of inter-relationships that it proposes. However, we do not all share the same values. 

In the fragmented, disillusioned world in which we live, a world open to the sharing of cultures and of identities, albeit not always by choice, the issue of values is constantly at stake, and from this the very meaning of social life. Even the transcendental values that we all share, of sacred respect for life and of immanent justice, are not readily turned into public policy: abortion or capital punishment, for example. As for other values, such as freedom, truth or law, they are the subjects of constant debate in democratic societies and they are precisely the kinds of values that are at stake in a public policy on illegal drugs. 

It has now been thirty years since the Royal Commission of Inquiry on the Non‑Medical Use of Drugs, the Le Dain Commission, named for its Chairman, studied issues similar to those we are studying today. Its report on cannabis, whose scientific conclusions on the effects of the drug were generally accepted by all members of the commission, nevertheless led to … three reports: a majority report by three of the members, and two minority reports. During our first day of public hearings, Professor Line Beauchesne presented the fundamental differences of opinion among the members: 


The dissension stems primarily from different visions of the values that should underlie a drug policy. I will refer to the report to illustrate the three positions that can be taken on drug use.

The first position, based on legal moralism, is that advocated by Ian Campbell. This public policy approach founded on legal moralism justifies the current prohibition and resulting repression on the grounds that it protects common values. (…) Briefly put, the government is perceived as having the responsibility of establishing common values, which are then imposed on society with a view to achieving optimum social harmony. If everyone thinks the same way, then there will be fewer problems. 

(…) The second position, held by the majority of the Le Dain Commission members, is based on legal paternalism. Public policy based on legal paternalism justifies current prohibitions on the grounds that the State has a responsibility to protect non-independent persons, particularly young persons. 


When we come to the third position, that taken by Marie-Andrée Bertrand advocating the legalization of cannabis, this brings us around to the whole question of values (…). Legal liberalism implies that the government maintains some responsibility for preserving individual autonomy to the maximum extent possible. (…) A public drug policy based on legal liberalism is founded on the premise that the government’s role is to maximize opportunities for each individual to be a full citizen and to ensure that criminal law is never used. [1][1]


Moralism is an affirmation of a set of shared values. Paternalism is protection of the weak. Liberalism is maximization of the independence of citizens. These three categories do not include all of the possibilities: communitarianism, for example, represents another approach. In some areas of public policy, at certain times, these various approaches can co-exist. Nevertheless, each one expresses a different concept of the role of the State and of criminal law, and the roles of science and ethics in the choices that must be made.

Having examined each of these subjects, we have elected to set down the guiding principles that clarify the concept we have of the roles that the state, criminal law, science and ethics must play in the development of a public policy on cannabis. These principles will then help us in our analysis of the information resulting from the research and current practices in Canada, and most of all, influence our recommendations. In this way, the reader will have the benefit of our attempts to make explicit the principles which all too often remain implicit, therefore giving the opportunity to all to take us to task for inconsistency, or to voice their disagreement with our conclusions, because they do not share these principles. We feel this exercise has the virtue of being both clear and transparent.

In order to assist our preparations for this work on the guiding principles, we asked four Canadian academics, well known both in their respective fields and for their independence, to prepare issue papers on each of the four main themes: governance, criminal law, science and ethics.[2][2] We strongly encourage Canadians to read these texts, which are of an exceptional richness and quality. We will use these texts freely, without pretending to render the complexity of their thinking, but neither will we simply echo their sentiments. Just as we did not ask witnesses to tell us what to think, but rather to share their knowledge with us while being as rigorous and as precise as possible, whether their knowledge comes from research or from experience, so we asked for issue papers and not for answers to our questions. We must formulate our own responses to the illegal drug issues before us, and that is what is expected of us.

We will begin with a reflection on ethics. We feel that such an examination, insofar as it affects the very bedrock of our values, as it imposes a requirement for communication and dialogue[3][3], is the cornerstone upon which the other guidelines are based. Our principles dealing with governance – that is to say the role of the State – and with criminal law as a tool for achieving social conditions, then, hinge on this ethical concept. We will conclude with thoughts on the role of science, or more specifically of knowledge.




[1][1]  Professor Line Beauchesne, witness appearing before the Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, Senate of Canada, Second session of the Thirty-sixth Parliament, October 16, 2000, Issue 1, pages 33-36. 

[2][2]  They are: R. Macdonald, Professor of Public and Constitutional Law, McGill University, The Governance of Human Agency; A.P. Pires, Professor of Criminology, University of Ottawa, Legislative Policy and “Two-Sided” Crimes: Some elements of a pluridimensional theory of the criminal law; T. de Koninck, Professor of Philosophy, University of Laval, The Role of Knowledge and Culture in Public Policy on Illegal Drugs; and J.F. Malherbe, Professor of Social Work, Université du Québec à Montréal, The Contribution of Ethics in Defining Guiding Principles for a Public Drug Policy. These texts are available on line at: www.parl.gc.ca/illegal-drugs.asp.

[3][3]  On this subject, see the work of the German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas, particularly De l’éthique de la discussion. Paris : Cerf. The author presents the process of ethical discussion as follows: Through debates, all participants must acknowledge that, in principle, each person participates fully, freely and equally, in the cooperative search for truth in which the unlimited strength of the best argument will carry the day. Practical discussion is considered as a demanding form of argumentative training of the will, which (…) must guarantee, through the universal presuppositions on communication, the fairness of all possible normative agreements negotiated under these conditions. (…) Furthermore, practical discussion is considered to be a process of inter-comprehension in which, due to its own nature, all participants ideally adopt a role. Therefore, the individual and ideal adoption of a role played by each person in particular and privatim is transformed into a practical public operation by all, intersubjectively and in common. (pages 18-19).

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