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Le Dain report on drugs divides cabinet

The Story

For decades, Canadians of all stripes have argued that the penalties for marijuana possession far outweigh the seriousness of the crime. In 1969 Pierre Trudeau's Liberal government orders Canada's first serious look at changing the laws. In June 1970 the Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs delivers its interim report, calling for the decriminalization of all drugs. Analysts call it "one of the most politically-explosive documents ever put before the government." Going far beyond suggesting decriminalizing marijuana, commission chair Gerald Le Dain recommends a mere fine of $100 for possession of any drug, including "hard drugs" like cocaine and heroin. That recommendation is immediately rejected. But Health Minister John Munro announces that his government will immediately look at moving marijuana out of the Criminal Code and into the Food and Drug Act. That's news to Justice Minister John Turner, who can barely contain his wrath. Turner tersely tells reporters that his job is to enforce current laws, not the interim recommendations of a commission. As we hear in this Sunday Magazine report, Health Minister John Munro seems to have neglected to consult Turner or his cabinet before speaking to the media, and is "courting political suicide." Unfortunately, it appears the political rift will drown out Le Dain's recommendations about drug education and "wise, informed freedom of choice."

Medium: Radio
Program: Sunday Magazine
Broadcast Date: June 21, 1970
Guests: Frank Howard, Gerald Le Dain, Barry Luger, Don Mazankowski, John Munro, John Turner
Host: John O'Leary
Reporter: Peter Loucks, Tim Ralfe
Duration: 28:05

Did You know?

• The Le Dain commission's 320-page interim report argued that nobody should go to jail for possession of psychotropic drugs. But it did not recommend outright legalization because there had not been enough clinical study or public debate on the subject.

• The commission justified the decriminalization of hard drugs as well as marijuana because they felt that penalties for possession should not be based on how harmful a drug is to the user.

• The Le Dain commission said drugs are so pervasive in Canada that government strategy should focus on frank drug education, not suppression. Chapter two of the interim report was an explicit explanation of what various drugs do -- including any positive aspects. The commission argued that a careful, scientific explanation of the whole truth was the only responsible approach to drug education and worth the risk of sparking interest in drug experimentation.

• In the year following the release of the interim report, the commission studied drug education, treatment for drug abusers, and the costs of current drug law enforcement. The first report, on treatment, was published in January 1972. It included a first aid manual for treating drug users that was sent to every doctor in Canada. But many doctors saw this as an attack on their profession.

• The commission's final report was delivered in June 1972. The five members of the commission were split on the recommendations. The majority position was held by Le Dain, Heinz Lehmann and J. Peter Stein. They argued that marijuana possession should be decriminalized because the law enforcement costs of attempting to prohibit it were too great. They said they hoped this would not promote marijuana use, but admitted this might be an incidental effect of decriminalization.

• Two members of the commission dissented. Marie-Andrée Bertrand thought the government should go further and provide a legal source for marijuana distribution. On the other hand, Ian Campbell felt the majority recommendation would be seen as an endorsement of the safety of marijuana and would result in increased use.

• Justice minister John Turner argued that the courts already had discretion to hand out summary convictions without jail time (and did so 90 per cent of the time) so there was no need to change the laws.

• Turner became finance minister in 1972. In 1984 he replaced Pierre Trudeau as prime minister, but was defeated in the federal election two months later.

• John Munro was responsible for establishing the commission of inquiry in 1969. His public enthusiasm for decriminalization did not end up being "political suicide" -- just a blunder. His government ignored the Le Dain commission's report, and Munro went on to be minister of Labour and Multiculturalism, Indian and Northern Affairs and eventually head of Transport Canada.


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