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 loi.


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 government.
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 Murray, 1994).
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 Gerber, 1993).
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, 1997.
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 national boundaries.
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]