Opinion

The stinking hypocrisy over pot finally ending: Neil Macdonald

Neil Macdonald takes a look at Canada's hypocritical and damaging history with pot and what legalization could bring — aside from lots of taxes.

A look at Canada's damaging history with marijuana and what legalization might bring

The government has promised to table legislation for the legalization of pot next spring, but it could take much more time for the bill to be studied and eventually passed into law. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

My late father was born early enough to remember mail-order catalogues offering THC capsules to people who were having trouble sleeping or eating.

It worked, obviously. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the active ingredient in cannabis, and while the term "the munchies" didn't exist in rural Ontario during the first two decades of the 20th century, that's what the catalogues were selling. That, and a nice buzz.

Anyway, Dad said it was elderly people, farmers worn out by a life of hard labour, who used the capsules, and no one connected the drug to murder, insanity, death or the rape of white women by members of other races.

Then, in 1923, Canada lost its mind, bought the murder, rape and insanity thing, and criminalized cannabis, and for the next 93 years — to this very day — has persecuted heaven knows how many people, ruining lives, ending careers, denying comfort to the ill, and actually sending people to the horror of prison, all for something most smart people knew all along is a piddling, victimless act.

Lives ruined

Of course, most victims of this were young people, who are more easily caught than adults with private homes. Or minorities, because they're shaken down far more often by police.

And the stinking hypocrisy was that plenty of politicians, including prime ministers, and plenty of police, and plenty of judges had, at one time or another, smoked a joint themselves, but remained willing to continue wrecking other people's lives for doing the same thing.

Few had the courage to speak out.

Twenty years or so ago, doing a documentary on cannabis, I spoke to a man who, as a university law student in 1979, had persuaded the Joe Clark government to propose decriminalization in the speech from the throne. (When I asked Clark many years later what happened to that initiative, he answered: "Ronald Reagan happened.")

Prime Minister Joe Clark mentioned the possibility of decriminalizing marijuana back in 1979. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

But would that former law student talk on the record? Umm, no. Because, you see, he'd become a Crown attorney, and although he assured me his views had not changed, the police wouldn't appreciate them.

I also called a judge (later to become a much more senior and famous judge) who, in her student days, had advocated for reform of marijuana laws. Would she speak? Please don't mention me, she said.

Ditto a federal public servant who'd once headed the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in 1979. He was just plain scared by 1993; he hung up on me.

I even approached former justice minister Kim Campbell, running for prime minister at the time, to ask if she'd ever smoked pot. Yes, she said haughtily, but if you understand the law, Mr. Macdonald, you'll know I never violated it, because I never possessed the drug. It was passed to me. (The Mounties instantly disagreed with her legal opinion.)

During the 1993 campaign, Prime Minister Kim Campbell admitted she'd smoked marijuana before. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

It was a variation on Bill Clinton's not inhaling. Ridiculous, almost cowardly. Or Barack Obama, who admitted cocaine use in a memoir, then oversaw national crackdowns on pot.

Which brings us to Justin Trudeau. Let's be clear here: He openly acknowledged having used cannabis, and decided not just to decriminalize it, but to outright legalize it.

Good for Justin Trudeau. That took guts. That's called courageous leadership.

Conservatives, of course, will screech about this, until they shut up and accept it, the way they've given up fighting gay marriage.

But the weird thing is that legalization of marijuana is, strictly speaking, a conservative idea. Conservatives are, or are supposed to be, laissez-faire.

It's liberals who desperately want to use government to protect people from themselves.

Disclosure here: I enthusiastically smoked cannabis for years, until I stopped. It weirds me out now, and I can't handle it. It never made me want to try heroin, though, or rape anybody, or steal to get my pot fix. I am 100 per cent sure alcohol and tobacco, the single most preventable cause of cancer, did me far more damage. Let the government outlaw tobacco if it's so concerned about public health.

Big money

We are still in bizzaro world, by the way. We're supposed to be so much more progressive than the Americans, and yet hundreds of millions of Americans live in states where possession of cannabis is completely legal, or an offence that merits nothing more than a traffic ticket. At the same time, the Americans will bar a Canadian from the U.S. for life for admitting ever having smoked dope, and may continue to do so, especially under their bizarro-world new president.

And don't forget, there's a hell of a lot of money at stake here. Police, who have for decades inflated their budgets by busting kids for pot during the "war on drugs," are no doubt having urgent discussions with their political masters about keeping those budgets intact.

Police raids on marijuana dispensaries made plenty of headlines in Canada this year. (Judy Trinh/CBC)

And of course other public servants are licking their chops at the prospect of enlarging their departments.

The Liquor Control Board of Ontario is already waving its hand around anxiously. The recommendation of the federal task force that marijuana be sold in a separate facility from alcohol is even better; new LCBOs (MCBOs?) can be built, and all sorts more staff hired, thereby grossly inflating the price of a joint. It's the Canadian way.

No doubt some LCBO executives are already planning glossy monthly magazines suggesting pairings of Thai-stick or Maui Wowee with a nice leg of lamb or a risotto. The governments that sent people to prison for pot will be promoting it. Shamelessness always pays.

Customers browse samples at Shango Cannabis shop on the first day of legal recreational marijuana sales in Portland, Ore., in October 2015. (Steve Dipaola/Reuters)

You can bet a month's pay that conservative corporate Canada is already planning to elbow aside the funky little shops selling things like "purple kush" and the "edibles" bakeries, the sort that operate in Colorado and Washington. We don't want to be having too much fun.

Here's something else you can count on: tax, and lots of it. This week's task force recommendations even proposed taxing more potent pot more heavily. For everyone's safety, of course.

Nothing ever really changes.

Oh, and one other thing: once legalization happens, anybody with a marijuana-related criminal record should be pardoned.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.

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