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Cannabis legalization: A feel-good moment in Canada | Robert Harvie

Tuesday, October 16, 2018 @ 12:09 PM | By Robert Harvie

Robert Harvie %>
Robert Harvie
Well, then. Oct.17 is almost here, a day of much rejoicing for the 4/20 crowd — and for those who are in a state of fear and loathing, I say, “relax.” Have a brownie.

And understand that we are tearing apart a series of laws enacted by the same types who brought us Japanese internment camps, residential schools and the Chinese head tax (more on that in a moment).

Legislated racism.

Just over 100 years ago, there were essentially no laws in North America prohibiting the possession and use of drugs of any kind. Somehow, we formed two countries, established constitutions, built railroads and basically thrived as nations in trying times, while people were perfectly free to smoke marijuana, and even do opium and cocaine to their hearts’ content.

Then, in the early 1900s, in both Canada and the U.S.A., efforts were undertaken to control the use of opium, which it would appear was largely a response against the growing number of Chinese people immigrating into both countries.

In 1901, there was a royal commission instituted to “Investigate Chinese and Japanese Immigration” — and members of that commission travelled to Vancouver with an investigator “learned in the ways of the Chinese” to examine opium dens. The net result of this “investigation”? An increase of the “head tax” on Chinese immigrants from $50 to $500 per person (equivalent to about $15,000 today) largely in response to racist sentiment and a desire to reduce or eliminate Chinese immigration.

The justification? Well, some time after the increased head tax, William Lyon McKenzie King toured Chinatown and Japantown in Vancouver, and noted that compensation claims from a riot which had occurred in 1907 would be going to dealers of opium which and he was shocked to discover: “The Chinese with whom I conversed on the subject,” King wrote in his report, “assured me that almost as much opium was sold to white people as to Chinese, and that the habit of opium smoking was making headway, not only among white men and boys, but also among women and girls. I saw evidences of the truth of these statements in my round of visits through some of the opium dens of Vancouver.”

Shortly after, based upon his experience and a report that he produced, the first drug laws were introduced into Canada under the Opium Act of 1908 — which some suggest was supported, in part, upon assertions that the Chinese were using opium to have sex with white women.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not so coincidentally, the United States passed the Opium Exclusion Act of 1909, and the drug war in Canada and the U.S. had officially begun.  For the first time, criminal laws were brought to bear on those using drugs.

Certainly, if you Google, “Racist drug laws,” you will see a profusion of information regarding not only the racist “impact” of our war on drugs, but in fact, racist intentions of legislators in bringing them to fruition.

Beyond the efforts to undermine Chinese immigration, as recently as 1968, under the Nixon administration, there were suggestions that the ramped up “war on drugs” was a political effort to undermine the voice of the left and of black people, as discussed by former Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people ...
“You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said. “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

So — like it or not — a good part of our concern or fear regarding drug usage was influenced by poorly considered and even overtly racist policy.

As a result, it’s an open question whether anti-drug laws were ever about public health concerns. However, regardless of their intent, clearly those laws failed miserably in halting or even reducing drug abuse and succeeded in a grossly disproportionate impact upon citizens based upon their socioeconomic status and more particularly, their race.

Consider — that in 2013, statistics showed marginally different usage rates for marijuana between white and black people in the U.S. (9.5 per cent and 10.5 per cent respectively), while at the same time, FBI statistics also showed that black people were almost three times more likely to be arrested for the same issue. According to a VICE News study, the situation is similar in Canada.

Consider further, statistics also show that affluent youth are two to three times more likely to become addicted to illicit drugs than members of the broader society.

The net result — affluent young people are actually much more likely to have addiction problems but are much less likely to go to jail because of it. Seems legit?

Accordingly, while we may debate the extent to which marijuana usage is a benign matter, it seems clear that the removal of the criminalization of that law is anything but benign.

Whether you use or plan to use marijuana after Oct.17 or not — we, as Canadians, should celebrate the partial dismantling of an effort which has been horribly racist in effect, if not actually in design.

This is clearly a good thing.

Oh. About having that brownie. You can’t buy THC-infused brownies yet.

But, as of Oct. 17, you can make them.

Robert Harvie is a family lawyer, mediator and arbitrator with Huckvale LLP, advisory board member for the National Self-Represented Litigants Project and past Law Society of Alberta bencher. E-mail him at  

Photo credit / mrhighsky ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

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