Article by Alan Young, Globe and Mail
I started practising criminal law in 1984. I felt relieved that I was not starting my career within the dystopia of repression and fear prophesized for that year by George Orwell. However, I quickly discovered that the war on drugs had reached a fevered pitch by 1984, and that this futile war was fostering repression and a slow movement toward the Orwellian society of rampant state surveillance. Cannabis was still being demonized as the “smoke from hell” and billions of dollars were being wasted manufacturing cannabis criminals out of ordinary, law-abiding and productive citizens. Orwell’s prophecy may have been just a literary vision, but as a young lawyer, it seemed to me that only in a world of science fiction could a plant become public enemy No. 1.
Not long after my career began, I was counsel in a case involving a large-scale conspiracy to import hashish. One of the accused, Rosie Rowbotham, a well-known advocate for cannabis reform, had not made bail owing to previous cannabis convictions and he sat alone in the prisoner’s dock. One day at trial, the Crown entered a large brick of hash as an exhibit and, as is customary, the exhibit was passed to the defence lawyers and their clients for inspection. The Crown continued with his examination of a witness until he stopped in the middle of a question to advise the judge that “Mr. Rowbotham is ingesting the exhibit in the prisoner’s dock.” In his continued and relentless defiance of the law, he ate the hash to send a message and make the day in court more enjoyable. As Rosie flashed a Cheshire grin, with specks of brown hash on his lips, the other cannabis conspirators filled the courtroom with uproarious laughter. But the laughter was short-lived. There is nothing funny about criminal law. As the song goes, “I fought the law and the law won,” and everyone involved in the conspiracy went to jail, with Rosie being sentenced to 18 years as the ringleader.
I have seen many good people destroyed by our punitive drug war. I have seen long years wasted in prison for harmless pot crimes; families torn apart, with children being seized from pot-smoking, caring parents; young men beaten while being arrested for smoking a joint in public spaces; model workers being fired from jobs for private lifestyle choices; and homes razed, and homeowners shot, during aggressive police raids. Indirectly, we were all harmed by this war, as billions of dollars were diverted away from the pursuit of true predatory criminals. As a civilized society, Canada has spent far more money on drug-law enforcement than on the investigation, enforcement and prevention of serious crimes of violence. The war on drugs made us less safe and secure.
While people are still healing from the ravages of this war, the tables have turned and, in a few days, everyone of age can get legally stoned. Licensed cannabis producers, drug stores, provincial governments, labour unions, marijuana dispensaries and aggressive stock brokers all want a share of the legal market. Casting a dark shadow over this emerging new market is the sinister irony that former police officers and other public officials, who were responsible for sending thousands to jail in the past for selling pot, are now poised to make millions for doing the very same things as the people they busted. The government should be handing out pardons to the cannabis criminals and not licences to those who hunted these so-called criminals.
How did we get from the scary days of 1984 to the Green Rush of 2018? The historical record is a testament to the stupidity and mendacity of government. With little fanfare, marijuana became a prohibited substance in Canada in 1923. Even though it had been used for sacramental, medicinal and recreational purposes for 10,000 years, when Parliament decided to criminalize marijuana use, few members of Parliament had even heard of this drug. In fact, in 1923, few Canadians were using it and, until the explosion of the counterculture in the 1960s, there were only a handful of recorded convictions for the use or sale of marijuana. After 95 years of chasing the cannabis criminal, we have seen consumption of marijuana skyrocket, with an estimated four million Canadians indulging in this “vice,” despite the presence of our draconian criminal sanctions.