Marcel Martel. Not this Time: Canadians, Public Policy and the Marijuana Question. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006. x + 277 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8020-9379-0.
Reviewed by Catherine Carstairs (Department of History, University of Guelph)
Published on H-Canada (June, 2006)
Not this Time is a solid case study of the public policy process in Canada. Marcel Martel examines the role lobby groups, federal and provincial bureaucrats and politicians, a Royal Commission, drug and alcohol foundations, and powerful individuals played in the debate over marijuana legislation from 1961 to 1975. The main point of his story is that despite this massive debate, very little happened. Marijuana was not decriminalized or legalized, although these options were considered. Cannabis was not moved from the Narcotic Control Act to the Food and Drugs Act, although this was considered. Instead, it became possible to proceed by summary conviction instead of indictment (1969), and the federal government instructed prosecutors to give people with no previous record a discharge (1972).
There is much here to interest drug and alcohol historians, historians of the state, and, perhaps most interestingly, students of regionalism. One of Martel's best chapters examines drug debates in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, and Prince Edward Island. In Ontario, while MLAs occasionally raised alarm about the "hippie" problem in Yorkville or the problem of glue sniffing, the government relied heavily on the advice of the internationally regarded Addiction Research Foundation (ARF), which took a more moderate and reasoned approach. In Quebec, MNAs expressed little concern about drug use, although they did create an Office for the Prevention and Treatment of Alcoholism and Other Toxicomanias (OPTAT) in 1968. Unlike ARF, which was at arm's length from the provincial government, OPTAT was created as part of a highly centralized Department of Health, which was in keeping with Quebec's emphasis on state-building in the areas of health and education in the 1960s. In British Columbia, drug debates were far more heated, with legislators describing recreational drug use as a "cancer" and an "epidemic." In 1967, the Social Credit government passed an Act that would have sentenced people found in possession of LSD to a maximum six-month sentence. This, of course, violated the constitution, since criminal law is a federal matter and the law was overturned by the BC Court of Appeals. In British Columbia, the provincial agency responsible for drug and alcohol treatment and education was the Narcotic Addiction Foundation, headed by the alarmist H. F. Hoskin. When a New Democratic government came to power in 1972, they abolished the NAF and replaced it with the BC Drug and Alcohol Commission. Hoskin would head this organization as well when the Social Credit Party returned to power in 1975. In Prince Edward Island, there was no provincial agency devoted to drug and alcohol issues, but the province took a strong stance against legalization, stressing the health risks of marijuana use. In his analysis, Martel emphasized the distinctiveness of Quebec, stressing that the Quebec government wanted provincial autonomy on this issue, while Ontario pushed for federal-provincial cooperation. But what struck me were the similarities between a more moderate Quebec and Ontario compared to Prince Edward Island and British Columbia, where the politics were far more extreme. Also, the attempt by the BC legislature to pass criminal law showed that the desire for provincial autonomy was not restricted to Quebec!
Another chapter explores the role of interest groups including student groups, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the Canadian Medical Association, and the Council on Drug Abuse (CODA). Martel argues, somewhat to my surprise, that student organizations had little impact, in part because of their constantly changing leadership. I believe he may have underestimated their power. Martel's study pays relatively little attention to the media, citing only a LeDain study that was done on newspaper editorials, and I wonder if his emphasis on government sources led him to underplay the extent to which youth views were circulating in the popular press, or even in the homes of their sometimes more prominent parents. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police played little role either, perhaps because of the dominant position of the RCMP in drug enforcement over the years. The RCMP would continue to play an important role in arguing for strict penalties and enforcement. The Canadian Medical Association took a softer approach, voting against prison sentence for possession offences, but it was deeply divided on how far to go. In 1972, members voted against their own sub-committee's recommendation that marijuana be moved to the Food and Drugs Act. Finally, CODA, although it sold itself as a group of "concerned citizens," was, in fact, dominated by the pharmaceutical industry. CODA took a strong stance against illicit drug use of all kinds with posters like "Sniff, Smoke, Pop, Shoot, Die."
The remaining chapters examine the media, the debates within the federal bureaucracy and the LeDain Commission. The book does not examine the courts, which is unfortunate, because even though Martel argues major policy shifts do not happen, the impact of being charged with possession changed dramatically. Before 1969, prison terms for marijuana possession were common. Yet in 1973, only 5 percent of people convicted of possession went to jail. In Panic and Indifference, P. J. Giffen, Shirley Endicott and Sylvia Lambert show that some judges were criticizing the penalty structures. To what extent did the judiciary want to see changes in drug legislation?
Although Martel's main focus is marijuana, other drugs were exploding in popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, including LSD, solvents, tranquillizers, and amphetamines, and Martel occasionally addresses glue-sniffing and LSD use. He also points to growing alarm among health experts about rising alcohol consumption, and especially binge drinking, among youth in the early 1970s. Increasingly, drug and alcohol researchers and professionals argued that all drugs existed on a continuum of harm, and that all drugs, legal or illegal, could be misused.
Not this Time concludes with an examination of Canada's more recent debate over legalization/decriminalization, but the book went to press before the election of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his announcement that his government would not re-introduce the Liberal government's bill to decriminalize marijuana. Once again, it seems, Martel's title is appropriate: changes to marijuana laws will not happen this time. Much like the 1960s and early 1970s, politicians divided, policy experts disagreed, and the international conventions constrained Canada's ability to act. Even though we now have much more evidence for the medicinal benefits of marijuana, there is also more intense pressure from the United States against decriminalization. Change may take an awfully long time.
. P. J. Giffen, Shirley Endicott and Sylvia Lambert, Panic and Indifference: The Politics of Canada's Drug Laws: A Study in the Sociology of Law, (Ottawa: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, 1991): pp. 505-510.
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Catherine Carstairs. Review of Martel, Marcel, Not this Time: Canadians, Public Policy and the Marijuana Question.
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