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Canada's 100-year war on drugs

Trudeau latest in long line of Liberals at forefront of narcotics laws

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As an astute political strategy, Liberal party Leader Justin Trudeau's recent declaration that he supports the legalization of marijuana makes sense -- sort of.

Such a policy definitely separates the Liberals from the Conservatives and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has stated a Conservative government will never decriminalize marijuana, let alone legalize it.

In the past six years, more than 400,000 arrests related to marijuana have been made by the police, an increase of 41 per cent.

Trudeau, too, has won favour with a majority of Canadians -- 65 per cent according to a November 2012 Forum Research poll -- who believe marijuana should be decriminalized or legalized.

But Trudeau's view that marijuana should be regulated like tobacco and alcohol has also raised the ire of medical professionals, legal officials and some pundits who have criticized him for being naive.

Legalizing marijuana, it is argued, would increase demand and use among young adults; lead to more driving infractions since getting behind the wheel stoned is as dangerous as being drunk; and, in general, cause more serious health problems. Various types of cancers, heart disease, long-term memory impairment and schizophrenia have all been connected to marijuana use by an assortment of medical studies.

Trudeau might, therefore, be playing with political fire.

At the same time, there is historical symmetry to his stand. For more than a century, the Liberal party has been embroiled in both the establishment of Canada's drug laws as well as the decriminalization of marijuana.

If anything, the Liberals have always prided themselves as a party that has reflected the values of the times. In the early 1900s, this meant protecting white Canadians from the dangers of Asian immigration.

On Sept. 7, 1907, the Asiatic Exclusion League of Vancouver went on a rampage though the city's Chinatown and Little Tokyo. No one was killed, but there was considerable property damage. The Liberal government of Wilfrid Laurier sent William Lyon Mackenzie King, the country's first deputy minister of labour, to investigate.

Among the many individuals who submitted claims for restitution were several Chinese opium dealers, which prompted King to study the opium trade in Vancouver.

There were no laws then governing the use of opium or other drugs; and, in fact, during the 19th century, laudanum, a mixture of liquid opium and alcohol and highly addictive, was popular as a pain remedy.

King was stunned by what he learned about the corrupting influence of opium, connected as it was with widespread notions that Chinese men used opium to exploit and sexually assault white women.

Less than a year later, King's report was used as the basis for the Opium Act, which prohibited "the importation, manufacture and sale of opium for other than medicinal purposes." An analysis of the debate in the House of Commons demonstrates a clear link between the passage of the act and virulent anti-Chinese sentiments -- especially among B.C. MPs.

Canada was the first country in the Western world to enact such legislation.

Soon after, King was elected to Parliament and became the first minister of labour. He continued this inaugural "war on drugs" with the more comprehensive Opium and Narcotic Drug Act to prohibit the improper use of opium and other drugs. Tobacco and alcohol were notably excluded from this legislation.

Possession of opium was now a criminal offence. Police were given wide powers of search and seizure and immediately targeted Chinese immigrants, who were believed to be the main suppliers and users of the drugs.

For many years, as historian Stephanie Bangarth points out, convictions were listed in official reports into two columns, one for "Chinese," the second one for "Others."

That racist theme was given more credence by Emily Murphy in her bestselling and sensational book about drugs, The Black Candle, published in 1922.

Murphy was a police court magistrate in Edmonton (and the first female judge in the British Empire) and one of the celebrated "Famous Five" -- together with Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Edwards -- who fought for women's rights in the Persons Case of 1929.

Yet like King, Murphy feared Canada would be ruined by non-white immigrants, primarily Chinese and black men.

"A visitor may be polite, patient, persevering," she wrote, "but if he carries poisoned lollypops in his pocket and feeds them to our children, it might seem wise to put him out."

She also targeted "Marahuana, a New Menace," a drug she suggested that could drive its users "completely insane." "Marahuana" and "hasheesh ("the weed of madness"), imports from Mexico, the Middle East and the Orient, were cast as destructive to Canadian morality.

Mackenzie King, now the prime minister, and his Liberal government were convinced. In 1923, a year after The Black Candle was given widespread publicity, marijuana was outlawed and the restrictive Chinese Immigration Act was passed, which banned "all Chinese from entering Canada except students, merchants, diplomats and Canadian-born returnees."

For the next five decades, Canada's drug laws were made more stringent and the penalties harsher. Then, the 1960s arrived and attitudes toward marijuana gradually changed -- at least among university-age students and their groovy professors.

The politician who catapulted to power in that era was, of course, Justin's father, Pierre Trudeau, who became leader of the Liberal party and prime minister in 1968. Hip and cool, or so was the persona he exuded, Trudeau soon appointed a commission of inquiry headed by Gerald Le Dain, the dean of the Osgoode Law School who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1984.

After an exhaustive investigation, Le Dain delivered his final report in 1973 and recommended the decriminalization of marijuana laws. Trudeau and many members of his cabinet, including his justice minister, John Turner, however, were opposed to Le Dain's radical reforms.

Turner did accept that lighter jail sentences for possessing small amounts of marijuana was a sound idea. "No one wants a society where we are going to send a generation to jail," he said.

Since then, a succession of Liberal and Conservative prime ministers has considered more drastic decriminalization of marijuana, though none has gone so far as calling for its legalization.

Justin Trudeau has taken a risk, and you can count on Conservative attack ads sometime soon portraying him as rash and out of touch with "ordinary" law-abiding Canadians. Maybe so, but even if this issue is not as clear-cut as Trudeau has advocated, you still have to admire his gumption.

Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 3, 2013 A15

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