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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

Drugs have been prohibited for fewer than one hundred years; cannabis for slightly more than 75. It is tempting to think that the decisions made over the years to use criminal law to fight the production and use of certain drugs are in keeping with social progress and the advancement of scientific knowledge about drugs.  Pre-twentieth century societies were less advanced and did not have the sophisticated tools that medicine, molecular biology and biochemistry, psychology and the cognitive sciences have provided over the course of this century of technological revolution. The prohibition measures adopted by parliaments, and on a wider scale, by the international community were therefore a more or less accurate reflection of the knowledge gradually acquired by scientists. The gradual conquest of territory occupied not so long ago by the irrational and its gang of charlatans and other shamans continued, for the greater good of humanity. As proof, phenomenal  technical advances in medicine and pharmacology over the course of this century have resulted in increased longevity and decreased infant mortality in Western countries.

But is this really the case? Is civilization one long march towards progress, towards greater, and increasingly invincible, rationality? If we consider the state of the planet and the alarms sounded by more than one scientist today, we may have our doubts. From a social standpoint, the twentieth century has not brought fewer wars, less destruction, or more equality between people than previous centuries. With respect to drugs, is the legislation a more or less faithful translation of scientific knowledge for the greater good of all? Can we discern a rational structure in the national laws and international conventions that govern certain drugs and other substances? Are they based on knowledge of the effects of drugs on the psyche and human behaviour? Do they reflect the desire to ensure the well-being of the public?

The history of legislation governing illegal drugs in Canada, like the analysis in Chapter 19 of the structure of international conventions, suggests that this is highly doubtful. We do not deny that knowledge has advanced; the second part of our report testifies to this. But scientific knowledge itself is a structure that develops in a given historical context and responds to paradigms in the way problems are posed and research is conducted. The dominant scientific positivism is a temporary result in the long evolution of knowledge. It is not the end of the story. Within the scientific process, a selection is made of pertinent questions and ways in which to ask them, such that any question is not necessarily a good question and certain ways of answering are more acceptable to the community of researchers.

Moreover, legislation adopted by parliaments is influenced at least as much by prejudices and preconceptions resulting from pop science as by partisan, personal and international considerations. In this sense, the parliamentarian is no different from any other citizen, as we pointed out in the report’s general introduction.

We were told several times that we could not compare the effects of cannabis to those of alcohol or tobacco. And yet, even at the risk of being unreadable if not unacceptable to the community, public policy on drugs must propose some rationale of the type: this is prohibited, because…, and this is not, because…. Most of the time the reason– or the justification? – is presented as risks or dangers on the one hand and as medical usefulness on the other. Thus, under the current control regime, because of the risks or dangers they are believed to present, some drugs must be regulated, that is, they are not sold over the counter. When they present a danger and they have no known medical application, the regulatory controls prohibit their manufacture, production, growth, use, possession, etc., entirely. That is the case with the legislation and conventions governing opium and its derivatives (heroin), the coca plant and its derivatives (cocaine, crack) and the cannabis plant and its derivatives (marijuana, hashish). When the drug presents a danger but is medically useful, it is subject to more or less severe regulatory controls. That is the case with benzodiazepines and other powerful medications, which are sold by pharmacists and cannot be obtained without a medical prescription. Other drugs present a health risk: nicotine, alcohol, as well as several other over-the-counter drugs. The packaging must indicate the risks (except for alcohol – which is very telling) so as to warn the user.

To what extent is such reasoning really rational?


Three researchers at the University of Toronto (Lazarou, Pomeranz, Corey, 1998) have estimated that correctly prescribed legal medications kill, on average, 100,000 people a year in North America. Although for methodological reasons that figure was cut back by one half or two thirds, it nonetheless illustrates the enormous losses of human life that go undetected by any monitoring system, including the legal system. No one thinks that this danger should be avoided by prohibiting medical prescriptions - the risky decisions made by physicians - or denying the "right to use" medications. Why? Because we do not see how that solution could be preferable to the solution of taking risks responsibly. Knowing that this problem exists, we will try to find other solutions, such as better quality control for the products, etc. Nor (fortunately) do we consider assigning criminal responsibility to physicians for taking the risk of writing a correct prescription, knowing that even correctly prescribed medications can cause death. [1][1]


The 2001 report from the International Narcotics Control Board indicates a worrisome increase in the abuse of various prescription drugs in the United States and notes that several of these medications are found on the black market, in particular through the Internet.[2][2]

Tobacco use causes more than 400,000 deaths a year in the United States, and approximately 45,000 in Canada. As for alcohol, it is linked to physical aggression and violence, especially marital, and to road accidents, and its abuse causes thousands of deaths each year.


It is a mistake to see illegal drugs in a separate category from the legal drugs insofar as the history of criminalization is concerned. We have compounded that difficulty today because we do not tend to see the legal drugs in the same limelight as the illegal drugs. To demonstrate that, we use the phrase "alcohol and drugs" as if alcohol were not a drug, as if police officers who go to domestic disputes do not know already that the major drug problem they will likely find at that dispute is alcohol abuse, as if we do not already know that more than 70 per cent of all homicides involve alcohol abuse as a critical factor. For us to pretend that the consumption of alcohol is on a morally different plane from the consumption of illegal drugs seems to be a kind of cultural folly that speaks volumes about the cultural blinders we wear as we go about our business in everyday life. [3][3]


Is the rationale of the system of controls acceptable in the eyes of civil society, users as well as abstainers? What criteria motivated the legislators’ decisions? For that matter, were there any criteria? What motivated parliamentarians from Canada and elsewhere to prohibit certain substances, to control access to certain others, and to permit still others to be sold over the counter?

Knowing where you have been helps you to understand where you are going.  That is the goal of this chapter, which retraces the evolution of Canadian drug laws from 1908 to the present day.[4][4]  We have identified three legislative periods. The first, and longest, spans the years from 1908 to 1960. That is the period of hysteria. The second, which is much shorter, runs from 1961 to 1975 and is the period involving the search for lost reason. Lastly, the contemporary period, which really starts at the beginning of the 1980s, is the period of forging ahead regardless. As it would be too much to describe the different sections in the various bills adopted over the years, we have appended a table that explains and presents the clauses of the legislation adopted from 1908 to 1996 on the control of narcotics.



[1][1]  Pires, A.P., (2002) op. cit., page 43.

[2][2]  INCB (2002) pages 58-60 in particular.

[3][3]  Testimony by Neil Boyd, Professor of Criminology, Simon Fraser University, before the Special Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs, Canadian Senate, Second Session of the Thirty-Sixth Parliament, October 16, 2000, Issue 1, page 49.

[4][4]  This chapter is based largely on the excellent report prepared at the Committee’s request by François Dubois, research assistant to Senator Pierre Claude Nolin: Le Parlement fédéral et l’évolution de la législation canadienne sur les drogues illicites, Ottawa: Special Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs, June 2002. This report is available on line at www.parl.gc.ca/illegal-drugs.asp

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