At the beginning of the 20th century, Canada established the Opium Act: the first national drug prohibition in North America. It was a decision worthy of a Canadian Heritage Minute, or perhaps a Ken Burns-style documentary.
Sparked by an economic downturn and rumours of the importation of Chinese labour, anti-Asian race riots rocked B.C. during September 1907. In Vancouver, a mob of thousands, urged on by members of the Anti-Asiatic League, ravaged the homes and shops of Chinatown. Enormous property damage was done on "the night the white boys played." William Lyon Mackenzie King, then Assistant Minister of Labour and future Prime Minister, was sent out from Ottawa to assess reparations.
Chinese merchants had been legally processing and selling opium in Vancouver, Victoria, and New Westminster since 1870, and paying a municipal licensing fee to do so; but King was shocked when made aware of these operations. Although, at the time, there was no serious drug problem and the Chinese community was probably the hardest working and most law abiding in British Columbia, King felt that, "We shall get some good from these riots yet." On his return to Ottawa he lobbied for sanctions, and on July 20, 1908 the Opium Act was accepted by the Governor General, outlawing the importation, manufacture, and sale of opium for purposes other than medicinal, as the drug was used in patent medicines made and sold by white-owned businesses.
King was warned that taking opium out of legitimate circulation would lead to "the use of other illegal drugs with less bulk, more potency, and greater profit per unit volume," yet he persisted in his crusade. In 1911, he went to Parliament to request a further prohibition on cocaine, "said to be popular among young black men," and a new offense, "illegal drug possession," was introduced. By 1916, all possession and use of opium were illegal. Photographs of police drug squads posing beside tables of confiscated contraband began to appear in the news media - looking much the same as those we still see today, nine decades later. When asked about tobacco, King responded that it had not yet been declared a drug.
In 1923, without debate or discussion, it was announced that "there is a new drug in the schedule," and the use, sale, and possession of marijuana was made illegal, largely for fear that Mexican migrants and Negro jazz musicians would use it to seduce white women. It was understood that the laws would not be applied to the white populace.
During this period, the other, more significant drug problem, alcoholism, was also dealt with through prohibition. Although alcohol prohibition, for native peoples only, dates back to 1854 in British Columbia and was imposed on the Western Territories of Canada in the 1870s (helping to create the forerunner of the RCMP as enforcers), this program for social control really took fire in the 20th century. Prince Edward Island sanctioned booze in 1900 and continued to do so until 1948. Ontario (from 1916 to 1929) and Alberta (from 1919 to 1924) followed suit, along with several other local and provincial administrations.
Widespread corruption and violence, along with increased alcohol consumption, resulted. British Columbia instituted an alcohol prohibition in 1917 but repealed it by 1921 when returning WWI veterans decided that this was not something they had fought for. Furthermore, the Provincial Prohibition Commissioner, W. C. Findlay, was found guilty of bootlegging and sent to federal prison. By 1929, most alcohol prohibitions had been abandoned in Canada and replaced by liquor control boards.
In the United States, the "Great Experiment" lasted from 1920 to 1933, where the terms bathtub gin and speakeasy originated, and the vicious criminal, Al "Scarface" Capone, became one of the richest men in the world. The murder and crime rates remained the highest in U.S. history until Richard Nixon's "War on Drugs" in the 1970s.
However, the other drug prohibitions persisted as more substances were added to the list in 1929, 1960, and 1970. In 1961, the Narcotic Control Act increased the sentence for trafficking to life in prison, and for importing and exporting to seven years minimum, second only to murder and treason. Since then, according to the United Nations Annual Drug Report (2004), the illegal drug trade has grown to about a third of a trillion dollars a year, every year, year after year.
To put it in perspective, a drug seizure of $10 million is, then, 0.003 per cent of the entire world illegal drug revenue: a cup of water from the ocean. The largest cocaine seizure (30 kilos) ever made at Pearson International Airport, reported on June 12th, 2007, which made headlines and was lauded by the Honourable Stockwell Day, Minister of Public Safety, amounted to just under five million dollars street value.
Yet, when questioned about the drug prohibition, many Canadians do not appear to know such a thing even exists, though it is a part of our daily life and largely a Canadian invention. Try asking 20 people: "How well do you think the drug prohibition is working?" Do not let them talk about drug use, but only about the prohibition itself. The ignorance is often amazing even though we spend around $400 million a year to enforce the prohibition and allow police the legal right to look up our rectums and take away our homes; all which gives rise to the fear that the police - along with pimps, law-and-order politicians, and drug dealers - might become addicted to prohibition. As well, according to the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs (2002), the cost of promoting cannabis prohibition alone is around $1.5 billion dollars per annum.
One way to rectify this lack of awareness and knowledge could be to encourage some aspiring film makers to produce an informative half-or full-hour documentary about the drug prohibition. Not a sensational film with drug users shooting or smoking up in back alleys, but a straightforward history - one which could be used as an educational tool in schools and suitable for television.
We are well served in Vancouver for the making of such a film. There is much archival material available from the provincial archives, the Police Museum, and the Vancouver newspapers. As well, the Department of Criminology at SFU and local professors Neil Boyd and Bruce Alexander are both known experts on the history of the drug prohibition. Professor of Economics, Stephen Easton, Senior Scholar for the right-wing think tank, the Fraser Institute, might be consulted for a view from the other side.
The question is not about drugs. We love our drugs: go to your local shopping mall or town centre, mentally remove all the nicotine, alcohol, caffeine, pharmaceuticals, and sugar, and see what is left. As for illegal drugs, anyone who wants them can find them - and easily. What is needed is an informed discussion on the drug prohibition. Perhaps we could start by speaking about prohibition-related crime, rather than drug-related crime.
As July 20, 2008 approaches, perhaps a centennial celebration for the 100th anniversary of drug prohibition should be in order. If there exists a National Toasted Marshmallow Day (August 18), why not have a National Drug Prohibition Day? There could be parades, bands, fireworks, and barbeques on the beach. Of course, one cannot have a centennial celebration without commemorative coins and stamps. Tommy Chong, one of the Trailer Park Boys, or the presiding attorney general could lead the parade in a big white Cadillac.
Gerald "Jerry" Paradis is a retired judge with 25 years experience on the bench in British Columbia, and a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). The non-profit educational organization was created to give a voice to all the serving and retired members of law enforcement who believe the war on drugs has failed, and who wish to support alternative policies. Originally begun by five retired police officers, LEAP now has over 5,000 members in 54 countries. Non-law enforcers are welcome to join as auxiliary members. Paradis spoke to The Peak about drug prohibition on the backyard patio of his North Vancouver home.
Peak: How well do you think the drug prohibition is working?
Paradis: It's not working at all - it's not a matter of well or not well. It's not doing what it was intended to do, which was to give some sort of government control over the problems caused by the abuse of drugs. I do not think that anyone believed it could eradicate the natural tendency of some people to look for benefit from psychoactive drugs. If it was meant to build private fiefdoms and legitimize police budgets, it worked beautifully. The RCMP has used the drug scare to provide their indispensability. Prohibition doesn't work for anyone else except criminals.
Peak: Some people that I ask actually don't know there is a drug prohibition going on.
JP: They do not think outside the box. Even drug users don't. It has been going on so long they have been conditioned to think this is the only way it works. Even as a young lawyer defending drug offenders, and even for my first several years on the bench, I was in the box. I did not consider whether it was right, wrong, or effective. Yet it does exist, is part of our lives, and costs us billions of tax dollars.
Peak: It seems that many, perhaps most, members of LEAP are retired persons. Why do you think that is?
JP: There are some serving members of the police, prosecutors, and judiciary, but yes, the vast majority are retired. In the U.S., judges are somewhat restricted as social commentators; here we are shut-up completely. When I spoke out as a sitting judge in the most moderate way, I got media flack about it. Police officers on the job who oppose prohibition and speak up in public are in a real bind with their colleagues and in the performance of their duties. Are there a lot of them? I believe yes. Do I know some of them? Yes.
Peak: What can LEAP do about the drug prohibition?
JP: LEAP is important because we are your cops and judges, the ones on the front lines. The Kiwanis and the Chamber of Commerce will listen to us because of the posts we held; and because we are retired, we can speak out.
Peak: So LEAP will not be in the streets up against the tear gas and night sticks?
JP: No! That would be antithetical to LEAP. We are non-confrontation; education is our way. Our presenters [Judge Paradis is one of the 130 speakers for LEAP operating in 8 countries] want people to consider a better way. To criminalize a health problem diminishes everyone, yet we cannot even discuss drug use because it is illegal. Government should be involved in regulating drugs, as we do for alcohol and pharmaceuticals. The present system has no quality control; that is in the hands of criminals. In terms of public harm, alcohol would be at the top, marijuana way down the list, and heroin and cocaine in the middle somewhere. We must provide treatment for those who need it. Alcohol ruins some lives, but not others. My own father was an alcoholic, but never missed work, never abused his family. But those who cannot function should be helped.
Peak: Do you think we are ready for a referendum on the drug prohibition?
JP: No, not yet. It is easier to institute a prohibition than dismantle it. A government and the Canadian people would have to be determined to do that. I estimate that it would take five to seven years. Peak: The Canadian Drug Prohibition will be 100 years old in 2008. How do you think we should celebrate this centennial commemoration: parades and banners on the streets, barbeques on the beach, t-shirts?
JP: We should hang our heads in shame.
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.