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  • Not This Time: Canadians, Public Policy, and the Marijuana Question 1961-1975
  • Erika Dyck
Not This Time: Canadians, Public Policy, and the Marijuana Question 1961–1975. Marcel Martel. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006. Pp. 277, illus., b&w, $27.95

Marcel Martel tackles the question of marijuana legalization in Canada by dissecting the highly politicized debates of the 1960s and 1970s. He raises several provocative themes in his staid examination of this often polarized issue. By drawing on newspaper reports and records from the medical community, the RCMP, the Le Dain Commission (the Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs), federal and provincial governments, and addictions research organizations, Martel illustrates the complexity of these debates and shows how the legalization of pot defies a simple pro or con approach.

Martel explores the deep divisions within the medical community over assessing the risks and benefits of marijuana use. Some viewed marijuana as a 'gateway' drug, one that led to harder substances, and ultimately heroin use. Others regarded its abuse as part of a disease of addiction and not criminal behaviour per se. Some members of the medical community felt that the health concerns for alcoholism grossly outweighed those associated with marijuana. Although there was no consensus from this community, legal decisions often hinged on pronouncements from medical experts.

The legal community similarly struggled with how to handle marijuana through legislative measures. Should marijuana use be subject to harsh penalties on the assumption that its use leads to the consumption of harder drugs? Conversely, are the punishments disproportionate to the crime, particularly when considered alongside alcohol abuse? Many of the drug users were university students with otherwise bright futures; marijuana consumption perhaps represented only a brief flirtation with defying authority. Surprisingly, however, Martel explains that in spite of concerns about youth taking drugs, students themselves were relatively silent in the public debates. [End Page 324]

The RCMP and municipal police forces also had a stake in the debates, as the bodies responsible for enforcing the law in the midst of ambivalence concerning the dangers of marijuana consumption and distribution. Charges for the sale and possession of marijuana at first provided clearer parameters for defining criminal behaviour, but channelling resources into newly formed drug squads to target the marijuana trade struck some observers as a waste of expenditures. Varying interpretations of the dangers of marijuana use led to different levels of enforcement across the country.

The drug laws fell under federal jurisdiction, but Martel points out that the provincial governments were influential in debating the issue. Quebec stood out in this examination as being acutely concerned with losing the capacity to make decisions about its health-care provisions, including addictions services, if the federal government took the lead on drug regulations. Ontario, by contrast, supported federal intervention in this arena, and the province also housed the leading Canadian organization on drug use, the Addiction Research Foundation. For the provinces, drug use was intimately linked with health concerns and therefore fell under provincial jurisdiction. But Martel points out that international concern about narcotics ultimately constrained local decisions. Could Canada afford to propose liberal drug laws in contradistinction to declarations from the World Health Organization, the United Nations, or Richard Nixon's 'War on Drugs'? Although there were fierce debates within Canada, the international context profoundly influenced the recommendations of the Le Dain commissioners, which in turn affected the policy makers.

Not This Time illuminates the complex web of interests invested in the question of whether or not to legalize marijuana. Martel ends his study by reflecting on the debate in the 2000s, when its focus has shifted slightly to include a new set of proponents for the health benefits of marijuana consumption for chronic pain and AIDS. He reminds us, however, that even though this new medical evidence supports the pro-marijuana cause, it does not tip the scales in favour of legalization. American anti-marijuana campaigns exert even more pressure on Canadian policy makers now than they did in the 1960s and 1970s. He speculates that this added international pressure is likely tied up with softwood lumber debates and Canada's refusal to send troops to Iraq...


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