Neglected and Rejected: A Case Study of the Impact of Social Research
on Canadian Drug Policy *
Patricia G. Erickson
Canadian Journal of Sociology 23, 2-3 (Spring-Summer 1998): 263-280.
Abstract: This article examines a specific policy topic, the formation
of the new Canadian drug law. After four years, two governments,
and three Parliamentary committees, the Controlled Drugs and Substances
Act was proclaimed in May 1997. Despite a rich legacy of empirical
research pointing drug policy in a new direction, away from aggressive
criminalization, the new law reaffirms both the seriously deviant
status of illicit drug users and the primacy of the criminal justice
model over public health and social justice alternatives. I review
the research evidence and analytic contributions provided to these
deliberations by Canadian scholars from sociology and related
disciplines, often presented directly to the policy makers, and
consider explanations for the ultimate rejection of this expertise.
Résumé: Dans cet article, on étudie le développement de la nouvelle loi
canadienne sur la drogue. Il a fallu quatre années, deux gouvernements,
et trois commissions pour enfin déclarer le projet de Loi C-7
en mai, 1997. Cette loi affirme l'importance du crime ayant rapport
aux stupéfiants et aussi du châtiment en punition de ce genre
de criminalité. À certains égards, la loi ne tient pas compte
des recherches empiriques soulignant la valeur d'autres façons
d'aborder le problème, c'est à dire, des façons qui évitent le
châtiment en faveur de la santé publique et la justice sociale.
L'auteur réexamine les recherches sur cette question, y inclus
des arguments présentés directement aux commissions. Elle considère
certaines raisons pour lesquelles on a finalement rejeté la compétence
des sociologues et autres spécialistes en déterminant la nouvelle
A key difference between academics and politicians was illuminated
for me by the Foreword of a special issue of a drug journal presenting
"A Canadian Perspective" (Mitchell, 1991). A "Forward" (sic) appeared
by the Honourable Perrin Beatty, then Minister of National Health
and Welfare. What may have seemed like a missed typo actually
epitomized the great gulf between the academic and political forums.
Academics are concerned with words, and thus with "words that
go before," but policy makers are interested with "what goes onward",
with progress, with action steps, or at least the appearance thereof.
As this paper will demonstrate, it takes more then bringing the
respective practitioners together in print, or in one committee
room, to bridge this gap.
This paper will focus on the role of sociology and its allied
social research disciplines in Canada's 25 year drug policy debate.
In the tradition of Alfred Lindesmith (1965), sociologists have
been major players in the volatile inter-disciplinary context
that has attempted to bring about significant drug policy reform
since the first upsurge of youthful illicit drug use in the 1960's.
Research, writing, and socio-historical analysis have been extensive
from the Le Dain Commission (1969-1973) onwards. Political engagement
in royal commissions and parliamentary hearings has not been neglected.
Yet the result has been, as proclaimed in May 1997, a new Canadian
drug law that has been virtually untouched by this professional
activity and scholarly output. The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act [CDSA] is a throwback to the 1920's, a revamped Narcotic Control Act, based on myths and preconceptions about illicit drugs and their
evil, addictive effects on users, reinforcing the traditional
policy of criminalization.
The norms of society can be viewed as a reflection of the basic
expectations society has of its members, and the criminal law
can be seen as the moral core (Scheerer, 1978). When the actual
legitimacy of the norm itself is challenged, then both moral and
political authority of the dominant classes and the agents of
social control are threatened. The system can adapt by shifting
the normative order to accommodate the deviance, at least to the
extent of removing or reducing formal sanctions. The other alternative
is to re-affirm the existing normative order by increasing or
maintaining punitive sanctions to eliminate the perpetrators of
the deviance and to impose conformity on all others (Scheerer,
1978). The present paper portrays the re-entrenchment of Canada's
drug law as an illustration of the latter type of adaptation to
the challenge posed by sociologically informed, drug policy critics.
Though armed with research evidence and provided with access to
the public forum, reformers were unable to shift moral boundaries
towards an acceptance of the "normalcy" of drug use. Opposing
claims makers have been able to perpetuate, over many decades,
and in many countries, a drug panic combined with a punitive moral
crusade against the undifferentiated target of illicit drug users
(Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 1994). That they were able to do this successfully
again, in the Canadian context, was also facilitated by the institutional
drug control bureaucracy with its drug war mentality and stake
in continued criminalization (Giffen, Endicott and Lambert, 1992).
To set the stage for this latest chapter in drug law reform efforts,
this paper will trace the many contributions of Canadian sociologists,
and their disciplinary allies (mainly criminologists and anthropologists)
to drug policy-relevant research. Along with colleagues from different
specialities, sociologists have grappled with the thorny issues
of addiction and social control, and have produced a substantial
body of scholarship (see Blackwell and Erickson, 1988). Specific
drug policy initiatives will be examined, with attention to the
articulation of knowledge during the more recent legislative debates.
Given the final outcome of this process, the question of why politicians
and other policy makers in Canada have resisted the "enlightenment"
provided by the available scholarship and expertise will be considered.
Also noted will be the often greater attention paid to this work
in other countries. Finally, I shall offer a necessarily speculative
account of the possible positive impact of this sociological input
on society and the community more generally, despite its conspicuous
absence in the formal law and policy approach of the Canadian
As a caveat, please be aware that the selection of the work of
specific sociologists and other colleagues shall be illustrative
rather than comprehensive. I wish to highlight key contributions,
and may neglect some authors and publications. This is a more
personal piece of writing than is usual in academic discourse,
and is of necessity dictated by my own contacts and exposure in
over 20 years in the drug policy field. My primary aims are to
make others aware of significant applied research and policy advances
by their Canadian sociological colleagues, describe their interplay
in the policy arena, and seek a lesson for the future role of
sociology from this particular example.
Sociologists at Work -- A Legacy of Drug Policy Scholarship, 1965-96
Canada has a strong tradition of socio-historical scholarship
examining the origins and persistence of narcotics laws. The first
investigations pre-dated the Le Dain Commission launched in 1969.
A graduate student in the Department of Sociology at the University
of Toronto utilized extensive archival footage to analyse the
origins of the Canadian narcotic laws in 1908 through to their
consolidation in the 1920's (Cook, 1969). The overall project
eventually resulted in the publication of Panic and Indifference: The Politics of Canada's Drug Laws, a massive and detailed tome in the sociology of law (Giffen
et al., 1991). While identifying the focus of the original anti-opium
statute as rooted in antipathy towards a racial minority (i.e.
Asians) the authors also demonstrated that the persistence and
expansion of the narcotic laws required further explication than
that provided by a conflict or consensus model of law making,
and saw the role of bureaucratic law makers as central. Other
critical viewpoints have been represented by legal and Marxist
analysts (Solomon and Green, 1982; Comack, 1991).
Along with social-historical scholarship, empirical studies of
drug users also began in the late 1960's, in response to the emerging
"drug problem" among youth of that era (Erickson and Smart, 1980).
The Le Dain Commission initiated the first national drug use surveys,
under the leadership of Dr. Ralph Miller and a team of assistants,
many of whom were or became sociology professors (eg. Lynn McDonald,
Judith Blackwell, Florence Andrews Kellner) or law professors
and practioners (eg. Robert Solomon, Melyvn Green). A still ongoing
series of student surveys by the Addiction Research Foundation
of Ontario commenced in 1968, and a number of smaller, regional
surveys of special populations were also conducted in these early
days. These have been supplemented with increasingly more sophisticated
surveys at both the provincial and federal levels (Poulin, MacNeil
and Mitic, 1993). Canada has thus developed a sophisticated data
base on the drug use patterns and correlates of its population
(Health Canada, 1995; Rootman, 1988). This research is important
for drug policy debates, because police records of arrest and
seizures -- more indicative of police activity and priorities,
and often used by enforcement officials to promote their definition
of an ever expanding drug problem -- can be balanced by more objective
indicators of drug use prevalence and trends (Adlaf, Smart and
Walsh, 1993). For example, we know that in Canada most illicit
drug use peaked about 1979 and declined thereafter; moreover,
levels of cocaine use never could be justifiably termed an epidemic,
in contrast to the U.S. experience (Erickson, Adlaf, Smart and
Members of Canadian sociology departments have also contributed
to ethnographic or more community based studies of drug users.
Unique participant-observational studies among heroin users and
their interactions with police have been conducted over time in
British Columbia (Stoddart, 1988). Early research on the emerging
phenomenon of crack cocaine use, showing that its addictive powers
had been overstated, was carried out in Toronto (Cheung, Erickson
and Landau, 1991). Studies of the street scene and homeless youth,
examining drug use in the context of personal and social well-being,
have found drugs are used functionally by such youth to cope with
the day to day hardships of street life, a pattern often preceded
by a violent or abusive home life (Smart, Adlaf, Walsh and Zdanowicz,
1992; McCarthy and Hagan, 1996). Research on the impact of criminalization
on cannabis users has failed to demonstrate a significant specific
deterrent effect in the face of substantial individual and social
costs (Erickson, 1980; Erickson and Murray, 1986).
These community-based studies with purposive samples facilitate
the in-depth examination of drug use patterns and problems among
heavier users than is possible with large scale surveys, and reveal
important information about risky practices and potentially effective
interventions. Qualitative studies are also essential for understanding
the meanings of social rituals in drug use that promote, or prevent,
HIV transmission particularly among injection drug users. Such
community studies often lead to the challenging of simplistic
stereotypes about drug users and assumptions about the nature
of addiction embedded in drug prohibitionist regimes. For example
the supposedly "uncontrollable" property of cocaine use has failed
to withstand the scrutiny of empirical research on users outside
of treatment and correctional settings (Erickson and Weber, 1994).
These controversial findings are parallelled in studies in many
countries (Harrison, 1994; WHO, 1995).
Canadian scholars have also produced over many years a number
of policy analytic studies in the field of illicit drug policy.
Québec criminologist, Marie-Andrée Bertrand, consistent with her
pro-legalization minority reports for the Le Dain Commission (1972;73)
has continued her critical stance on drug policy and penal policy
generally (Bertrand, 1990). Again, there is great scope and variety
illustrated by the following examples: an assessment of the Ben
Johnson doping scandal as a moral panic comparable to illicit
drug panics (Blackwell, 1991); a landmark study of marijuana decriminalization
showing that rates of use did not climb more rapidly in states
that decriminalized compared to states that did not (Single, 1991);
a novel integration of legalization and health promotion (Beauchesne,
1992); an overview of Canada's Drug Strategy demonstrating that
the original goal of shifting the balance from supply side enforcement
to demand side approaches of treatment and rehabilitation was
displaced by allegiance to prohibitionism (Erickson, 1992). Moreover,
major books and critiques by non-sociologists of the "drug war
mentality" have nevertheless been informed by the wide body of
writing from this discipline (eg. Alexander, 1990; Boyd, 1991;
Mitchell, 1990; Skirrow, 1993). Nor has Canadian drug policy been
neglected by sociologists from other countries who have drawn
parallels between President Reagan and Prime Minister Mulroney's
efforts to tap the "drug panic" for political gain (Jensen and
Many of the above mentioned authors, and others in Canada, take
part in the many international meetings where drug policy is evaluated
and debated. For example, a cannabis conference on law, policy
and human rights in Bremen, Germany, placed Canadians on the speakers'
roster to present the adverse effects of cannabis criminalization
(Erickson and Fischer, 1995). Sometimes Canadians are asked the
anomalous question, (e.g. at an Australian harm reduction conference
in 1992), as to how to explain the "success" of their drug policies
compared to its neighbour to the South with its more serious drug
problems. In one instance, the audience was soon disabused of
the notion that Canadian laws and policies were much less punitive
than those in the USA, leading one observer to conclude that "Canada's
bite was worse than its bark" (McCoun, quoted in Erickson, 1992).
Canadians also sit on advisory drug policy bodies and task forces
in other countries as well as their own1.
Canada, then, is not lacking in a strong research tradition critical
of the past, harshly prohibitionist, drug policy for its ineffectiveness,
high costs and destructive impacts. Nor are data lacking on the
nature and extent of drug use, portraying most drug use as infrequent,
self limiting and producing few health or social problems for
the majority of users. Moreover, much has been written more recently
on the potential advantage of alternative policies, such as the
public health oriented approach of harm reduction, in providing
a more suitable model for Canada (Erickson, Riley, Cheung and
O'Hare, 1997). Did any of this social research and policy analysis
on the part of Canadian scholars, this distinctive sociological
tradition of conceptualization and assessment, have an effect
on new drug policy initiatives?
Entering the Legislative Arena -- Policy Initiatives, 1992-96
In this section, I shall consider the structure and content of
the deliberations of the various parliamentary committees that
considered the new drug law before it was passed in June, 1996
(for specific details of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, see Fischer, Erickson and Smart, 1996). Although it was first
tabled by the Conservatives in June 1992, and went through three
different numbers (C-85, C-7 and C-8) and two different names
(first the Psychoactive Substances Control Act, then the Controlled
Drugs and Substances Act) before being passed by the Liberal government
four years later, the basic features of the law remained unchanged
(Fischer, 1997). In my role as senior scientist with the Addiction
Research Foundation [ARF], I attended three hearings as part of
our delegation -- two House of Commons sub committees on health
and one Senate session with the committee on legal and constitutional
affairs. Transcripts are available for all such deliberations,
unless held in camera. These meetings are also, in principle,
open to the public, though usually space is somewhat limited.
Specific institutions, groups and individuals may be asked to
make a submission, and again in principle, anyone can request
standing and a slot in the hearings.
The significance of the new drug legislation is underlined by
the fact that no substantive changes had occurred to the previous
law, the Narcotic Control Act [NCA], since 1961, except for a minor penalty modification in 1969.
While the Le Dain Commission had recommended removal of the simple
possession offence for cannabis and other modifications (Le Dain,
1972; 1973) no legislative action directly resulted. The only
other intervening proposal was a bill to move cannabis from the
NCA into the sister criminal statute, the Food and Drugs Act; S-19 was introduced in 1974 and died on the order paper of Parliament
in 1976 (Erickson, 1980). Essentially then, Canada's drug law
had remained unchanged since the 1960's and drug policy issues
had been quiescent in the post Le Dain era (Erickson, 1992). In
the interim, a considerable body of relevant research and analysis
had emerged that might have been expected to provide the basis
for a new assessment of Canada's illicit drug "problem" and an
appropriate, evidence-based, social and legal response.
The first message delivered by government officials responsible
for Bill C-85 at the (Conservative-dominated) health sub-committee
was that "this was not a fundamental reassessment of Canada's
drug laws...[but a bill whose purpose was to] primarily consolidate
existing legislation" (Minutes, May,1993). Given the tight time
frame originally imposed on this committee -- two weeks to hear
witnesses, make recommendations and report back to Parliament
-- it seemed clear that no in depth examination would be possible.
Nevertheless, the lack of even superficial background knowledge
before the committee was illustrated by this interchange: A Member
of Parliament asked a witness from the Canadian Medical Association,
"Am I wrong the United Nations has said that Canada is the number
one illegal drug misusing country on the face of the earth?" (Minutes,
25 May, 1993). When the witness was unable to shed any light on
this allegation, the Member continued: "Most of us think it's
the United States or Colombia or someplace, but I gather that
the UN has said that Canada is actually the country with the greatest
amount of illegal drug use, at least among the industrialized
democracies." In fact, a series of statistical profiles of alcohol,
tobacco and other drug use had been prepared by the federal government's
own agency, the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse from 1992 onwards
(CCSA, 1995). Their figures clearly showed a decline in prevalence
of both cannabis and cocaine use in the general population aged
15 years and over between 1985 and 1993 (ibid.:118). Rates in
1993 for lifetime use were 20% for cannabis, 3% for cocaine and
less than 1% for heroin (ibid.:122).
The later transcripts indicated that the committee was never provided
with any clarification on this question, nor with any trend data
or detailed evidence from the government's own surveys or other
sources about the actual extent of illicit drug use in Canada.
The quoted reference was undoubtedly to a preceding, prominent
news story in one of Canada's leading national papers (Globe and Mail, 17 April, 1992, A1-A2). This story reported Canada's high recorded
drug (mainly cannabis) offence rate, compared to other countries, i.e. a measure of police arrest
activity, not an indicator of the prevalence of drug use or problems
(Erickson and Cheung, 1992:257). The apparent basis on which this
sub committee on health was prepared to speed the new legislation
through was a totally incorrect assumption about Canada's number
one global status in illicit drug abuse! It would have been more
accurate to note that Canada's rates are lower than those of the
United States; Canada's illicit drug use levels are comparable
to, or slightly higher, than Australia and several western European
countries with respect to cannabis and cocaine, but generally
lower for heroin and amphetamine.
Very few witness groups were called by the C-85 committee, and
some of those who were had so little time to prepare that they
declined. Most who did testify were representing professional
groups with narrowly defined interests (eg. Canadian Pharmaceutical
Association; Non-prescription Drug Manufacturers Association).
It fell to the ARF delegation to raise the more general drug policy
issues, to express concern for the criminalization of users and
the punishment of addicts, and also to suggest that the bill would
be unlikely to reduce harm to the individual or society. This
infusion of expert opinion, while welcomed by the NDP and Liberal
critics on the committee, was not popular with the Conservative
members: "I've always thought your organization was helpful in
that intent [helping the police, helping the prosecutor]. Today
I'm almost thinking , am I hearing correctly. You're almost not
saying that and I don't think that's what you intend not to say"
(Minutes, May 27, 1993).
Bill C-85 died when the election was called and the Conservatives
lost office. When the identical bill was reintroduced by the Liberals,
as C-7, in 1994, a familiar theme quickly emerged. Now the (Liberal-dominated)
sub committee on health heard again that this was a "house keeping"
bill, and a M.P. proclaimed, "This bill is not a policy bill...
It's really tidying up some of the loose ends we've had hanging
around" (Fry in Minutes, May 10, 1994). This round, the C-7 committee
met for many more sessions, over a longer period of time, and
heard far more witnesses. ARF witnesses provided a more research
based presentation than it had for the previous committee, and
continued to reiterate its key point that a full scale policy
review should take place before any new legislation was introduced
(Minutes, May 10, 1994). There was much more spirited, and informed
criticism of C-7 than had occurred with C-85, to the extent that
ARF now occupied a middle ground while positions promoting public
health (Neil Boyd; Toronto Public Health Dept.) and favouring
legalization were introduced (Anti-Prohibitionist League of Quebec).
Of course, voices of support for the legislation, from the RCMP
and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, were also prominent.
Faced with a great deal of public criticism of Bill C-7, and also
substantial opposition from within the Liberal caucus, there was
a lengthy period of silence between the committee hearings of
April-June 1994 and the re-introduction and passage of the Bill
for third reading in the House of Commons on October 30, 1995
-- Quebec referendum day. Minor amendments, including one that
provided a summary only cannabis possession offence for amounts
of less than 30g of marijuana and less than 1 g of hashish, but
still providing for up to six months imprisonment, had been incorporated
by the sub committee2. The essentially unchanged Bill was presented by its Liberal
supporters (the only real opposition, the Bloc Québecois, not
being in the House that day) as transforming that "draconian Mulroney
bill" (Szabo, in Hansard, 1995) into "a more liberal policy with
regard to harm reduction, rehabilitation and societal aspects
of drug use" (Fry in Hansard, 1995). Among the many long speeches
supporting the Bill that day, it is instructive to quote from
one at length to illustrate the verbal contortions required to
present an innovative version of the status quo. Bill C-7 had
now become " more than a housekeeping bill. It achieves a balance
between the need for compassionate health and social components
of drug use and the need to punish and deal with the criminal
and violent aspects of drug use...That said, it was not the government's
intention that the Bill would alter or review existing drug policy
...Prohibition has had very limited success and very high cost...It
[C-7] is not a new policy and it is not even a big change, but
it is an important shift in perspective "(Fry in Hansard, 1995).
The government members did recommend, however, that a policy review
be conducted after the Bill was passed.
Before turning to the Senate's review of the Bill, it may be helpful
to note briefly what the major features of this new law are (Fischer
et al., 1996). As in its predecessor, the NCA, schedule I continues
to combine cocaine, morphine, heroin and a variety of opiates
without distinction. Cannabis, however, has been placed in a separate
schedule (Schedule II) with maximum penalties for cannabis possession
and trafficking affected by the amount of the drug involved. Many
features of the NCA are retained: imprisonment is a sentencing
option for all possession offences, and large additional fines
are also possible; maximum penalties for importing and trafficking
are still life imprisonment; extraordinary powers of police search
and seizure remain (Solomon, 1988). Several new features are present.
Precursor drugs have been added to the schedules of prohibited
substances (eg. those used in the manufacture of the psychoactive
drug). The police gain new powers, namely to sell drugs in "reverse
sting" undercover operations; seizure provisions have been expanded;
judges are enjoined to consider specific "aggravating" factors
(eg. violence, prior record, involvement of minors) when sentencing
and provide specific reasons for not imposing imprisonment; and police entry of fortified buildings
is facilitated. A feature of the original C-85 that provoked much
resistance from the health food industry, namely that any unnamed
and unanalyzed substance could be "deemed" to be included in the
list of prohibited substances if it had a psychoactive effect,
was deleted from the final form of C-7. The committee also added
a vague clause [11(1)] encouraging "rehabilitation and treatment
in appropriate circumstances"(Barnes in Hansard, 1995). This package
was proclaimed by the final Liberal speaker on Oct. 30 to "put
Canada in the forefront of leading the war on drugs from a perspective
of harm reduction" (Alcock in Hansard, 1995).
This might be an appropriate moment to digress in order to consider
a perplexing question that has likely occurred to the reader,
namely, what were the forces driving this Bill? This is not an
easy question to answer, as the impetus seemed to be largely "behind
the scenes," perhaps in the hands of Giffen et al.'s "bureaucratic
law makers." What is known is that the Bill survived two governments,
one Conservative the other Liberal, considerable and even public
opposition from within the Liberal government's own caucus, media
scrutiny and criticism, the testimony of not insubstantial expert
witnesses and interest groups -- and did this without a public
"champion" of the legislation. In fact, when I along with other
policy critics were called frequently by various media who were
trying to set up debates on C-7, the complaint was always that
they couldn't get anyone from Ottawa to defend the Bill! There
was never a high-profile public spokesperson for the value of
the drug bill (comparable to the federal Justice Minister's championing
of gun control legislation at about the same time); there was,
in fact, almost no public defence of C-7 at all. Vague references
were made by the government members to pressure from the USA,
visits from foreign delegations and international concerns that
the Bill be passed (Hansard, 1995). Why this would carry the day
for a new law that would have its major impact on Canadians is
not clear. The explanation for the CDSA's persistence and eventual
victory is a puzzle that still remains to be solved.
The final chapter in the journey of the new drug law took place
in the Canadian Senate where it was reviewed by the Standing Committee
on Legal and Constitutional Affairs. Hearings began in December
1995, were resumed in February 1996, and continued to clause-by-clause
reading and eventual passage in June 1996. On its way to passing
an essentially unchanged but re-titled Bill C-8, the Senate Committee
heard from a wide array of witnesses, amassed a considerable body
of research literature, and talked to the press about including
a cannabis decriminalization provision. Indicative of the greater
attention paid to social research was the reception of the submission
by the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy. This is an organization
founded in 1992, largely in opposition to Bill C-85, by a core
group of a dozen academics and policy analysts who had written
and published widely on social and legal aspects of Canadian drug
policy (most of whom are cited in this paper). This group's representatives
spent a lot of time with the committee, and were asked at the
end to provide specific recommendations and amendments to the
Bill, with supporting documentation -- the only group asked to
do so (Senate, Minutes, Dec. 14, 1995). Ultimately, the Committee
recommended a policy review, set out broad guidelines for complete
reassessment of the Government's approach (emphasizing research,
legal analysis and models from other countries as well as Canada),
and passed the Bill without major changes. The Chair of the Committee,
Senator Sharon Carstairs, in a subsequent interview on CBC's "As
it Happens," indicated she personally was in favour of marijuana
decriminalization, but explained that the Senate overall hadn't
been exposed directly to the research and therefore could not
support a policy change of that magnitude. Hence, the CDSA eventually was proclaimed and became the law of the land in May,
After the Senate's passage of C-8, the Standing Committee on Health
of the House of Commons quickly took action to initiate a review
of "Policies on the Misuse and Abuse of Substances" (Standing
Committee Minutes, June, 1996). The terms of reference for the
Committee included an assessment of the harmful impacts of both
legal and illegal drugs, and emphasized demand reduction through
the traditional means of education, prevention, treatment and
rehabilitation. These terms bore little resemblance to the Senate's
more far reaching recommendations regarding a policy review that
would encompass the development of a national harm reduction policy
and an examination of alternative control models. Issues raised
by many of the earlier presenters' research -- criticism of the
effectiveness of the supply side tactics of enforcement and imprisonment,
and the high health and social costs of continued criminalization
of illicit drug users -- were to be left untouched. Submissions
were invited from many of the previous cast of witnesses, and
hearing began in October, 1996 and were completed by June, 1997.
No significant changes to the existing CDSA or to the overall
direction of Canadian drug policy resulted from this review. The
criminally deviant status of illicit drug users had been re-affirmed.
So Much Research -- So Little Impact: Why?
The broader question of why Canadian drug policy is so resistant
to change is a perplexing one, but not our major concern here.
We can note, however, that some developed, western democracies
with traditional "hard-line" prohibitionist policies have been
reexamining them of late (eg. Australia, Germany) while others,
the USA in particular, remain vigorously committed to the War
on Drugs (Dupont, 1996; Erickson and Butters, forthcoming). In
time, cross national research may unravel some of the complexities
of differing national drug policies, their determinants, and the
factors that foster openness and resistance to change. Until then,
we can only wonder if there is something unique about Canada and
its approach to drug policy matters. Our more immediate concern
is with the neglect of relevant social research within our own
While our interpretations are necessarily speculative, some general
themes seem to emerge from this latest episode of drug policy
making in the 1990's. First, what are the interests and needs
of the politicians themselves? What can they gain (and lose) by
initiating reform of the drug laws? With public opinion divided
on the best course to pursue, change from the status quo is best
expressed as a "lose-lose" situation. This was articulated in
many of the committee hearings, especially in re-iterating that
this was a "house-keeping" bill only. Whether the public is, in
fact, as opposed to reform as the policy makers seemed to think
is a separate issue -- one they were not inclined to pursue, relying
instead on their perceptions and occasional citation of vociferous
anti-drug crusader testimony and literature. A related point,
made in other contexts, has been that politicians are happy to
embrace research that supports what they have already decided
to do. In this instance, while the weight of research favoured
reform, the pre-determined rejection of change in the Bills themselves
("not policy," "just housekeeping") and their support from federal
drug bureaucrats and Canada's Drug Strategy (Fischer, 1997) did
not create a receptive climate for "evidence-based" input to the
process. If research had demonstrated the effectiveness of deterrence,
and the great success of existing policies in preventing drug
abuse, for example, it might have been more welcome. As it was,
the perception of negative (or at least divided) public opinion
on reform and the generally critical nature of research findings
at odds with the governements' preferred course of action, may
have contributed to the the lack of influence.
A second possible factor is the cultural devaluation of science
and expert knowledge and its diminished role in government decision
making. This social process has been much discussed in academic
circles in recent years, and will not be elaborated here, but
it can be noted that examples abound in the drug policy arena.
The Mulroney government abolished the Law Reform Commission of
Canada, at the time in the midst of an extensive drug policy review
(Erickson, 1992). The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, providing
an independent research and policy analysis function for the federal
government, was cut to the bone in the 1996-97 budget, in preparation
for its final demise. As already described above, the House of
Commons sub committees sitting on the new Bills had no research
staff, did not solicit research input, and were refractory at
times to what empirical evidence made its way into their deliberations.
This is in sharp contrast to the Le Dain Commission, with its
large research staff and budget, and summaries of available knowledge
in its landmark reports (Le Dain, 1972;1973). [As a parenthetical
note, it would also be interesting to know the characteristics
of the current politicians and policy makers themselves, especially
their own educational and professional backgrounds, to match with
the impression of this observer that they seemed less well prepared,
or perhaps predisposed, than their previous counterparts to critically
evaluate the sorts of information that they were receiving3. Beyond the possible decrease in receptivity to science, what
this implies is the decline in, and lack of, mechanisms to transmit
social research findings in a useful way for the policy objectives
-- no agencies, no bureaucratic support structure, and hence no
role incumbents, with background and sophistication in grasping
and relaying pertinent information to elected representatives.
This might be combined with a greater tendency of elected representatives
to rely on their own interpretation of information, and to be
less receptive to expert opinion, than in the past. Thus, if this
scenario has validity, the impact of available research knowledge
would be seriously compromised.
Another suggestion is that there has been a continuing trade-off
between more liberal policies on alcohol and tobacco (eg. the
lowering of cigarette taxes) and the need to be "tough" on illicit
drugs. This is the legacy of this century's insistence on a sharp
legislative dichotomy between legal and illegal drugs (Murray,
1988; Erickson, 1996). In contrast to the widespread, highly promoted
and socially acceptable use of alcohol and tobacco for most of
this century, illicit drug users provide the "easy enemy" (Christie,
1993) for vilification and outsider status. There is a paradox
here, with Canada's global recognition as a pioneer in health
promotion and a reputation for tolerance and compassion (eg. policies
on multi-culturalism, refugees, as well as non-punitive responses
to homosexuality and abortion), coexisting with continued insistence
on harsh criminalization measures that punish drug addicted individuals
and that generate high levels of both profits and violence in
the drug trade. The persistence of the "dope fiend" mythology
suggests a Durkheimian interpretation to maintain a moral consensus
on the unacceptability of all illicit drug use behaviours. There
is also an increasingly unpleasant underside to the selective
enforcement of Canada's drug laws against visible minorities,
a path well travelled and documented in the USA, and more recently
in Ontario (Blumstein, 1993; Chambliss, 1994; Ontario, Commission
on Systemic Racism, 1995). As sociologists, the mission of examining
the forces that help to maintain stability in a society, as well
as those that put the interests of some groups above others, can
also help to identify important areas of social justice to be
addressed in the policy process. Unfortunately, the latest round
of drug policy deliberations were almost completely resistant
to warning signs about the social, racial and cultural implications
of maintaining allegiance to the policies and practices of an
aggressive drug prohibition.
Given the apparently negligible impact of social research on Canadian
drug law and policy in the 1990's, it might appear that sociologists
would be advised to concentrate on providing scholarly explanations,
rather than becoming directly involved in the policy forum. Yet,
as someone who might be said to have wasted a lot of time in preparing
for and attending government meetings, to no avail insofar as
significant changes in drug law and policy are the standard, I
find myself unwilling to give up. What I see as the more positive
impact of these various policy directed efforts by many colleagues
as well as myself is the difficult-to-gauge influence on the members
of the Canadian community more generally. Through media involvement,
teaching courses, and providing public access to the research
base on drug policy in a variety of ways, it is possible that
the future may be shaped in a way that profits from this knowledge.
For example, a number of scholars provided background, as well
as on camera presence, to the CBC "Nature of Things" special on
drugs and harm reduction (aired Nov. 24, 1991). This show was
a profound departure from the usual US dominated drug war fare,
and was well received according to public ratings . [An update
was presented on January 30, 1997.] ARF collaborated with TV Ontario
in 1994-95 to provide a critical and fact based series on "Myths
and Realities of Substance Use." These efforts, along with countless
OP-ED pieces, letters to Editors, "backgrounders" and short interview
clips, all take considerable time and effort away from conventional
academic publication pursuits, but reach out to a much wider audience
than is available within university corridors. Perhaps when public
opinion is more ready to tolerate the drug users among us without
resort to criminal sanctions, political resolve to change the
laws will follow.
I suggest that sociologists should not abandon their forays directly
into political forums, when such opportunities are presented.
We should also strategize around achieving greater public availability
and exposure to the hard-earned knowledge generated by social
research efforts. Energy could be focussed on improving skills
in communicating research initiatives and results to non-specialist
audiences. Perhaps we should also pay as much attention to deconstructing
the arguments of the competing claims makers, the defenders of
the status quo, as we do to our own research findings. Then we
may be more equipped to engage in a more effective public discourse
about the perceived threats posed by illicit drug users, to enquire
whose interests are being served by criminalization, and to ask
who has the power to define deviant substance use. We have learned
not to assume that rational arguments will carry the day. In various
ways, and with careful assessment of the actual policy process
and its successes and failures across a wide range of topics,
we shall be more able to play an effective role in the future
of Canadian society. It is also important to monitor and evaluate
the changes in drug law and policy in other countries, to further
advance knowledge on the conditions for successful criminalization
and decriminalization (Scheerer, 1978). Another chapter in Canadian
drug policy may yet be written.
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* The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and
do not necessarily represent those of the Addiction Research Foundation.
An earlier version of this paper was presented to the 10th International
Conference on Drug Policy Reform, Washington, DC, Nov. 6-9, 1996.
[Back to body]
1 For example, besides the Research Advisory Committee of the Canadian
Centre on Substance Abuse, I also am a member of the Advisory
Board of the Drug Policy Foundation in Washington, DC, and the
Consultative Panel, Australian Drug Foundation Advisory Board.
Many of my drug policy colleagues also have similar appointments
on various international bodies.[Back to body]
2 Under the NCA, drug possession offences were "hybrid", meaning
that the crown prosecutor had the discretion to proceed either
summarily or by way of indictment, with the latter providing a
maximum 7 year sentence. No amount of drugs was specified as a
guideline for determining the basis for proceedings. In practice,
virtually all cannabis offences were treated summarily by the
crown. The maximum for a first offence was then six months.[Back to body]
3 My favourite example of the total lack of penetration of objective
information was provided by the Chair of the C-7 sub committee
on health for the 1 1/2 years of its existence, Paul Szabo, when
he commented that "marijuana today is as potent as cocaine was
10 years ago" (Hansard, Oct. 30, 1995), a completely meaningless
pharmacological comparison between two different categories of
drugs.[Back to body]