Canada’s Lingering Reefer Madness

Canada’s Lingering Reefer Madness

As published in the Victoria Standard: July 17, 2018.

As the legalization date approaches marijuana opponents should consider the ugly consequences of nearly a century of prohibition. It’s also worth noting how yesterday’s crime becomes legal commerce, with a few words on official paper. They might even pour a drink and light a cigar, just to get in the mood.

Unfortunately, alcohol abuse and its attendant social ills were an accepted part of Cape Breton culture during my youth and the police pursued small-time pot dealers with the same vigor that Prohibition-era Mounties applied to bootleggers. Both scenarios represent a massive waste of public resources undertaken to gratify someone’s sense of morality. Of course, the officers concerned were undoubtedly pressured by commanders answerable to Canadian legislators ever-sensitive to American drug enforcement trends.

While Canada’s official marijuana policy has been gradually liberalized, far too many people are still burdened by cannabis-based criminal records. Most recently, Canadian pot users and cultivators suffered under Stephen Harper, whose government applied harsh measures to possession and trafficking.

There is wide disagreement over why the MacKenzie King government chose to criminalize cannabis in 1923, although Prohibition era sentiment is a possibility. Oddly, there is no official documentation to explain why the Narcotics Act was amended. Nevertheless, since Canada has traditionally been influenced by U.S. trends, it is reasonable to assume that America’s Depression-era anti-marijuana propaganda was influential among “conservative” Canadians legislators and law enforcement officials.

Although Virginia farmers were growing hemp in 1619, it took the 1910 Mexican Revolution to bring marijuana into the political realm. American politicians portrayed cannabis as a dangerous “Murder Weed” to generate anti-immigrant sentiment against Mexicans crossing the U.S. border to escape violence and persecution. Perhaps these events inspired Trump’s advisors to encourage the President’s infamous comments about Mexicans being criminals and rapists, a falsehood with great appeal to those seeking a scapegoat. These anti-Mexican policies were helped by the fact that marijuana use was common among those peasant farmers and laborers slipping across the U.S. border into Southwest states like New Mexico, California and Texas. It mattered not that each of these states were former Mexican territories seized by force under dubious pretexts.

In 1936 Harry Anslinger, commissioner of the new U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics, commissioned a publicly-funded propaganda movie called Reefer Madness to raise money for his young agency. Reefer Madness hysteria would later be used to oppress not just Hispanic Americans but also blacks, poor urban whites and jazz musicians of that era.

Anslinger later promoted the notion that marijuana use was a “gateway” to hard drugs. During World War two and the Cold War, the Canadian government adopted this thinking and used drug laws as a convenient way to persecute supposed communists, war time enemies like the Japanese and anti-establishment activists. Vietnam-era president Nixon employed the “gateway” fallacy to marginalize vocal minorities, anti-war activists and Vietnam veterans who had used marijuana during the war.

Speaking of heavyweight political pressure, two former Canadian police commissioners who entered the marijuana business have refused to lend their influence to help Canadians with criminal records for cannabis possession. Julian Fantino, former head of the Ontario Provincial police (OPP) and Norman Inkster, one time RCMP boss, both stated that is was not appropriate that they be involved in such matters. Their transformation from vocal cannabis critics to active retailers is a miracle of modern marketing.

While Ottawa has specified a four plant limit per household, both Manitoba and Quebec plan to resist this reasonable measure. Quebec’s Liberal government is concerned that home cultivators might be tempted to grow extra plants and sell the surplus. Quebec is also concerned that teenagers might be tempted to sample their parent’s weed. That is, if they’re not too busy sampling their parent’s tobacco and booze, an existing problem in La Belle Province.

Perhaps the real reason for cultivation limits and outright bans is state protection for licensed growers. Now that marijuana has become big business, it is hardly surprising that corporate lobbyists will be pressing hard to protect their client’s monopoly on large scale production. Unfortunately, official efforts to control consumption will predictably insincere.