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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
Volume 2 - Policies and Practices In Canada
Chapter 12 - The National Legislative Context
The special report on cannabis

Before presenting their recommendations in connection with a new public policy on cannabis, the Commissioners made a number of observations about Canadian cannabis legislation.


vv     The decision to criminalize cannabis was made “without any apparent scientific basis nor even any real sense of social urgency […]”.[1][86]

vv     The reversal of the evidentiary burden of proof for an offence of possession for the purpose of trafficking places a very heavy burden on the accused – significantly weakening the principle of the presumption of innocence – since he must prove that he did not intend to traffic by a preponderance of evidence, not just by raising a reasonable doubt in the mind of the judge or jury.

vv     Law enforcement is made very difficult by the very nature of the offences that take place secretly and often on a consensual basis, and extraordinary methods of law enforcement must be used. However, “the combined effect of their use in connection with [drug] laws has been one of the chief causes of concern about the impact of the criminal law in this field.”[2][87]

vv     RCMP officers and officers in the provincial or municipal police services do not have the necessary financial, human or technical resources to curb narcotics trafficking as well as dealing with simple possession offences. All too often, possession cases are discovered accidentally in the course of other police investigations or surveillance activities over several months, resulting in a discriminatory application of the law.

vv     The decision as to whether to proceed by indictment or summary conviction varies considerably from one area to another of the country, and is influenced by the number of ongoing cases involving narcotics and the significant discretion exerted by crown attorneys. This inequitable application of the law can have extremely serious consequences on a defendant’s future, particularly if a criminal record is the outcome.[3][88]  

vv     Sentencing practices in drug cases are characterized by a wide disparity across Canada because of individual judges’ perceptions about drug addiction, and their relative experience in criminal law and with cases involving simple possession or drug trafficking. According to the Commission’s research, judges with greater experience in these types of cases handed down more lenient sentences. For example, sentences for simple possession involved fines or probation when a defendant did not have a criminal record, and, in trafficking cases, imprisonment of less than two years;[4][89] and

vv     From 1968 to 1971, the proportion of fines imposed for simple possession of cannabis increased from 1 % of all dispositions to more than 77 %.[5][90]  


While the Commissioners agreed with these observations, their conclusions and recommendations were not unanimous.


The majority opinion – the recommendations of Gerald Le Dain, Heinz Lehman and Peter Stein

In order to explain the underlying reasons for their recommendations, the majority based their conclusions on the concept of harm, considering this the most useful criterion for laying down a new social policy for cannabis. This principle is associated both with the harm caused to an individual who uses a harmful substance, particularly his physical or mental health, and with the harm the individual causes to society, i.e. the impact on his family and colleagues. The concept of harm was of significance to the majority, since it made it possible to assess whether society should be concerned about the adverse effects of cannabis on human health and on society and, if such were the case, to what extent should criminal law apply in order to reduce those adverse effects. Should one criminalize simple possession of cannabis or only trafficking? Should measures such as decriminalisation or legalization be considered?

Initially, the majority wanted to eliminate some of the myths about the danger of cannabis:


The evidence of the potential for harm of cannabis is far from complete and far from conclusive. It is possible to find some fault with the methodology or the chain of reasoning in virtually all of the evidence. […] On the whole, the physical and mental effects of cannabis, at the levels of use presently attained in North America, would appear to be much less serious than those which may result from excessive use of alcohol. However, there has not been sufficient experience with long-term, excessive use of cannabis under North American conditions to justify firm and final conclusions.  [6][91]


Regarding the amotivational syndrome, the Commission said it did not have conclusive data about personality change.


Some observers have spoken of apathy and a loss of goals, an absorption in the present with little or no thought for the future. All of these symptoms might be equally associated with a profound change of values and outlook which many might regard as salutary.[7][92] In our opinion, these concerns justify a social policy designed to discourage the use of cannabis as much as possible, particularly among adolescents. [8][93]


The Commission did not have specific and conclusive scientific data to identify the harmful or beneficial effects of cannabis. On the other hand, while it believed that the dangers of cannabis (particularly those involving operation of a motor vehicle, poly‑drug use, long-term mental deterioration and disorder, and criminality) were exaggerated, the Commission recognized that cannabis, like all other drugs, can have particularly harmful effects when it is used along with other drugs and that its use by adolescents could have a harmful effect on their maturation. The majority of members explained that, even if the use of cannabis is not a threat to the foundations of Canadian society or to our system of values based, for example, on a productive life, this element could not be excluded from the formulation of a new policy on cannabis.

Secondly, since, in addition to health problems, cannabis use entails significant costs to the family, to society and to the economy, the majority justified the use of the criminal law, stating:


In our opinion, the state has a responsibility to restrict the availability of harmful substances-and in particular to prevent the exposure of the young to them-and that such restriction is a proper object of the criminal law […]  where, in its opinion, the potential for harm appears to call for such a policy. [9][94]


For this reason, the majority rejected a public policy model based on legalization of the use and distribution. Even if legalization would have had the benefit of better controlling supply and quality, without a considerable increase in the number of long-term users, it could have led to some users moving on to hashish, with its higher concentration of THC, or encouraged users to smoke more marijuana or other cannabis products in order to obtain the desired psychoactive effect, and this would have cancelled out the effectiveness of control measures and increased the likelihood of abuse. [10][95]

Therefore, the majority recommended maintaining the offences of cannabis trafficking, of possession of cannabis for the purpose of trafficking, and importing and exporting cannabis. However, it adopted a much more liberal position with regard to controlling the demand:


The criminal law should not be used for the enforcement of morality without regard to potential for harm. […] If we admit the right of society to use the criminal law to restrict the availability of harmful substances in order to protect individuals (particularly young people) and society from resultant harm, it does not necessarily follow that the criminal law should be applied against the user as well as the distributor of such substances. [11][96]


In this context, the majority felt it was necessary to amend the Narcotic Control Act, because “we do not believe that a change in the law need have an adverse effect on a proper appreciation of the caution with which we believe cannabis should be treated.”[12][97] It was necessary to restore Canadians’ confidence in and respect for the cannabis policy by reclassifying the drugs listed in the appendix to the Act, particularly cannabis. The majority opinion was based on the fact that:


While the Single Convention groups cannabis with the opiate narcotics it does not insist that it be given identical treatment in the law of the member states. The Single Convention has certainly been responsible for reinforcing the erroneous impression that cannabis is to be assimilated to the opiate narcotics but it does not prevent domestic legislation from correcting this impression. Because the present classification and legislative treatment of cannabis is so generally recognized to be erroneous and indefensible, any change in it which corresponded more closely to the facts could be expected to command much more respect and careful attention [to the law]. [13][98]


Restoring Canadians’ confidence in the Narcotic Control Act also involved a comprehensive review of criminal penalties relating to cannabis. To justify this view, the majority pointed out that the harm caused by the criminal law, particularly on mere users, was more serious than the harm to their health and their environment caused by using the drug. In its analysis, the majority focussed on the consequences of sentences on young people, since over 85% of those convicted for cannabis possession or trafficking in 1970 and 1971 were under the age of 25.

A criminal record could have serious consequences for the future of young people, limiting the right to travel, and because of the family, social or professional stigma it caused. The majority were of the view that the possibility of obtaining a pardon is not sufficient to resolve this situation, since: “the knowledge which a lot of people invariably possess of a conviction and the knowledge which can be obtained by interested parties through careful investigation cannot be eliminated.” [14][99] In fact, the Criminal Records Act provides only for removing information about the criminal record stored in national police files following a pardon, but not information in police investigation reports, or in legal documents stored in the law courts about the trial and the sentence, let alone newspaper articles.

Moreover, the majority of members deplored the extreme severity of sentences for cannabis use, stating, “they are out of all proportion to the harm which could possibly be caused by cannabis. Moreover, they are excessive by comparison with those of most other nations.”[15][100] It disapproved of the maximum penalty of seven years' imprisonment for cannabis cultivation for one's own use, the mandatory minimum penalty of seven years' imprisonment for cannabis importing or exporting, as well as the possibility of life imprisonment for cannabis trafficking. The majority’s criticism also covered the definition of trafficking, which included giving or offering, so that people who are merely passing a joint among friends in an evening could be charged with trafficking. The majority also mentioned that these sentences were made even more severe because:

vv     in the cases relating to possession of cannabis for the purpose of trafficking, the Crown could only proceed by way of indictment, with the consequence of more severe sentences; and

vv     the enforcement of the Narcotic Control Act was discriminatory (police investigations, the Crown Attorneys’ discretion in deciding how to proceed, reversal of the burden of proof to the detriment of the accused, and judges’ past experience).


The criminalization of cannabis had another negative effect: the illegal nature of simple possession and cultivation was conducive to the development of an illicit market, where some people must engage in crime or at least deal with criminals in order to obtain a supply. In some cases, people were exposed to other, more dangerous drugs. According to the majority:


 Making cannabis legally available would not isolate people from contact with the illicit market in other drugs. From the point of view of influence, the important contacts are between drug users rather than between users and traffickers. Most users are initiated into new forms of drugs by other users. Interest in other drugs would not cease if cannabis were made legally available. [16][101]


Finally, the use of extraordinary police powers, such as writs of assistance, often against users, only discredited the law further and adversely affected the morale of law enforcement authorities.[17][102]

For all these reasons, the majority recommended:


vv     that importing and exporting should be included in the definition of trafficking (as they are under the Food and Drugs Act), and they should not be subject to a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment;

vv     that it be possible to proceed by indictment or summary conviction in the case of trafficking and possession for the purpose of trafficking, and, on indictment, the penalty for this offence should be five years, and on summary conviction, eighteen months. It should be possible in either case to impose fine in lieu of imprisonment;

vv     that the prohibition against the simple possession of cannabis be repealed;

vv     that trafficking should not include the giving, without exchange of value, of a quantity of cannabis which could reasonably be consumed on a single occasion;

vv     that the prohibition against cultivating cannabis for personal use be repealed; and

vv     that the burden of proof on a person charged with possession for the purposes of trafficking be lightened, by stipulating in the Act that it is sufficient for the accused to raise a reasonable doubt as to his intention to traffic.


Minority Opinion–the recommendations of Marie-Andrée Bertrand

According to Marie-Andrée Bertrand, Canada’s cannabis policy required an in-depth reform that went far beyond merely amending the Narcotic Control Act. Dr. Bertrand took a much more liberal approach than the majority, and particularly Ian L. Campbell, as we will see below. Dr. Bertrand wrote that the Commission’s research findings “establish that a large number of people have used cannabis-more than a million in Canada. Very few of them have ever required medical or psychological treatment as a consequence. Smoking marijuana or hashish generally produces no serious personal problems, nor does it result in criminality.[18][103] Cases of habitual and excessive use were exceptional, as most users used cannabis recreationally. Any new public policy aiming at controlling cannabis use effectively without causing harm both to users and to society should consider these determinants. The use of the criminal law was out of the question. According to the Commissioner, there were several arguments in support of this conclusion.

Like the majority, she rejected a number of prejudices concerning harm caused by cannabis to human health, in particular its effects on brain activity and the ability to drive a vehicle, but recognized nevertheless that in large amounts cannabis could cause psychoses. While Marie-Andrée Bertrand commented that cannabis might have an effect on adolescent maturation, she said that very few facts supported the hypothesis put forward by the majority.[19][104] She also concluded that there was no relationship between cannabis use and criminality, aggression or the infamous amotivational syndrome.[20][105] Moreover, she rejected claims that cannabis use leads to poly-drug use in most users:


[…] a certain proportion of cannabis users take other drugs […]. We are not dealing with a phenomenon that is limited to cannabis, LSD and the amphetamines (which are used in combination by only a few), but with an almost indiscriminate use of mood-changing substances in our society. When we include alcohol, it can be said that Canadians consume great quantities of a variety of psychoactive drugs, even if cannabis is excluded.[21][106]


Second, users could not be sure of the quality of cannabis they bought, with all the concomitant repercussions, given the illicit and clandestine nature of production and distribution activities. Dr. Bertrand responded to the argument made by the majority that quality control of cannabis in a legal market would encourage a number of users to move to hashish by saying that no evidence points to such a possibility.[22][107]

Third, the prohibition of cannabis trade and illicit use was expensive and ineffective. Attempts to curb trafficking, despite all the efforts made by RCMP officers and municipal police forces, along with severe penal sanctions, were ineffective. The sentences provided for simple possession no longer had any dissuasive effect, since a million Canadians were using or had used cannabis.

Fourth, in its current form, the law had no educational or dissuasive impact, since Canadians’ perception of the harm caused by cannabis was no longer the same as the government’s. In this connection, Marie-Andrée Bertrand wrote:


A more important factor underlying problems in the application of the law is the gradual change in opinion taking place among Canadians regarding the harmfulness of this substance. The evidence has been taken into account - cannabis is not an opiate, its use does not induce physical dependence. The earlier opinions of society have been challenged and modified. […] However, the continued prohibition of cannabis has precipitated, among many users, a generalized disrespect for the law. [23][108]


For all these reasons, Marie-Andrée Bertrand recommended a “controlled legalization” policy for cannabis.  She concluded that the federal government should remove cannabis from the Narcotic Control Act and initiate discussions with the provinces to have the sale and use of cannabis placed under controls similar to those governing the sale and use of alcohol. Such a system would entail regulations prohibiting the sale or distribution of cannabis to minors, and governing the distribution of a quality product at a price that would make smuggling impractical. To guarantee the success of the new approach, the federal and provincial governments were to work together in developing all stages of the production and distribution of cannabis, while undertaking multidisciplinary epidemiological research to evaluate the repercussions of a controlled legalization policy on health and human behaviour and to monitor patterns of use.[24][109]

Lastly, Marie-Andrée Bertrand considered that this policy would prove beneficial, not only for users, but also for the federal and provincial governments because of the considerable revenue they might well derive from the sales taxes on such a popular product.[25][110]


Minority Opinion–the recommendations of Ian Campbell

In comparison with the very liberal recommendations made by Marie-Andrée Bertrand, the recommendations by Ian Campbell were much more conservative in tone. Although he was in almost full agreement with the conclusions of the majority, he firmly believed that decriminalizing simple possession of cannabis would be misinterpreted by the media and by Canadians. If cannabis were legalized, the signal that would be sent out to society, particularly to young people, would be that cannabis is harmless, and might eventually lead to the accepted use of other, much more dangerous drugs. In this regard, he stated that, in both cases:

I think there is also a risk that the repeal of the prohibition on the possession of cannabis, even by the young, would be misunderstood as indicating a willingness by the society to condone and accept the use of the drug. There is little evidence to suggest that such a willingness exists. […] The risk of such progression is probably not as great among those who have been deterred from use by the present law as among those who have already used cannabis. But the risk of progression is nonetheless real for some considerable number.[26][111]


He also felt that maintaining the prohibition had a positive benefit–that of protecting young people from the harm caused by cannabis:


The potential for harm from adult use of cannabis is probably very much less than from use by the young. But, I find sufficient reasons to recommend the continuation of the general prohibition. Not the least of these reasons is the practical impossibility, at this time, of using the law to convey a perception of the dangers of cannabis without maintaining the prohibition for all, whether young or old.  [27][112]


Against this backdrop, the law was in the interest of prevention and morality, protecting as it did both individuals and society. Continuing in this vein, Mr. Campbell spoke about cannabis and young people’s lack of maturity, saying:


We have properly been concerned about the damage done by placing too many duties and responsibilities on the individual too early. But it seems to me that recently we have been far too little concerned with the consequences of placing too many rights and freedoms on the shoulders of the young. [28][113]


Despite it all, like other members of the Commission, Mr. Campbell recognized that some penal sanctions provided by the law could cause harm that was disproportionate in comparison with the real harm caused by cannabis on human health and society. He therefore recommended that the prohibition on the possession of cannabis be maintained, with possession of cannabis being punishable, upon summary conviction, by a fine of $25.00 for the first offence and a fine of $100.00 for any subsequent offence. Maintaining the prohibition would benefit not only users, but also police officers, since it:


Is entirely reasonable to assume that a high proportion of those currently arrested for possession as a result of systematic police investigation are in fact guilty of trafficking.  [29][114]    


The work of the Le Dain Commission ended on December 14, 1973 when its final report was tabled. On July 31, 1972, John Munro, Minister of Health, revealed the policy that the federal government wanted to pursue following the tabling of the Commission’s special report on cannabis. Even though he refused to legalize the use of cannabis, the Minister stated his intention to remove cannabis from the Narcotics Control Act and place it under the Food and Drugs Act. This measure would be accompanied by lighter sentences for certain cannabis-related offences, research and education programs about its non-medical use, and less severe legal consequences for users. This measure would have covered hashish since the government “wanted to make a clear distinction between this drug [cannabis] and dangerous narcotics like heroin.”[30][115] Two years later, on November 26, 1974, the federal government met its commitments by tabling Bill S-19 in the Senate.




[1][86] Le Dain, G. et al., (1972) Cannabis: A Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs, Ottawa : Government of Canada, page 230.

[2][87] Ibid., page 239.

[3][88] Ibid., page 245.

[4][89] Ibid., pages 248-249.

[5][90] Ibid., page 249.

[6][91] Ibid., pages 266-267.

[7][92] Ibid., page 270.

[8][93] Ibid., page 274.

[9][94] Ibid., page 281.

[10][95] Ibid., pages 283-286.

[11][96] Ibid., page 282.

[12][97] Ibid., page 291.

[13][98]  Ibid., page 292.

[14][99]  Ibid., page 293.

[15][100] Ibid., page 293.

[16][101] Ibid., page 296.

[17][102] Ibid., pages 295-299.

[18][103] Ibid., page 303.

[19][104] Ibid., page 308.

[20][105] Ibid., pages 307-309.

[21][106] Ibid., page 308.

[22][107] Ibid., page 309.

[23][108] Ibid., p. 304

[24][109] Ibid., pp. 310-311

[25][110] Ibid., p. 304

[26][111] Ibid., page 311

[27][112] Ibid., page 313

[28][113] Ibid., page 314

[29][114] Ibid., page 316

[30][115] VALOIS, Donat, “La marijuana et le haschisch ne seront pas légalisés”, Le Droit, Ottawa, August 1, 1972.

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