Barbara Macrae
The John Howard Society of Ontario


As in real estate so it is in conceptions of social deviance--location is everything. What is seriously deviant, even criminal, in one culture hardly warrants a raised eyebrow in another. And, even where there is widespread consensus on the deviant nature of certain behaviours, different cultural influences may give rise to disparate strategies to achieve similar goals in dealing with the problem. Alternatively, very similar strategies may lead to significantly different outcomes in divergent cultural settings--a statement that might seem obvious when comparing cultures widely separated by geography, language and heritage, but less so when comparing countries for which the differences are considerably less apparent than the similarities. The proximity of Canada to the U.S., both in culture and geography, provides an excellent opportunity to examine the sensitivity of public policy to differences in values and history, especially in the area of drug policy, with all of its emotional and political accessories.

Historically, Canada and America have followed similar paths in response to illicit drugs and intoxicants. But now the two countries’ paths have diverged. In the last decades of the 20th century America has engaged in a “war” on illicit drugs, instituting in the process expensive and harsh measures to combat their use and trade. The policy of war garnered widespread public support from Americans, as have those who proposed and executed it. Some see in Canada’s tough drug laws a stance and purpose akin to the U.S. war, and the claim has been made that Canada followed the U.S. lead in instituting our own version of their war within our borders. This article will argue that America’s war on drugs is a departure--a change, not in degree, but in kind--from its classical prohibitionist policy. Engineered to further a domestic political agenda in the U.S. that has little to do with the individual and social consequences associated with chemical substances and everything to do with the role of the state. This article will also argue that this strategy has not simply walked across the border and taken root in Canada’s distinct cultural and political context. In the contest between competing visions about democratic government’s responsibility to its people, drugs are not the subject but the modifiers of the American debate and have an importance and meaning in the American context that are not replicated in Canada.

This research will examine the symbols, rhetoric and themes supporting the American war on drugs and explore how these “fit” with Canadian assumptions and myths. It will offer explanations for why Canadian drug policy differs so significantly in its implementation from its U.S. counterpart based on theories of how people select, assimilate and respond to information, and consider what relationship citizens’ consequent opinions have to their public policy choices. And finally it will offer some suggestions about how those who propose to improve and strengthen Canada’s response to illicit drug use and its attendant social problems should present their policy options to Canadians in ways that strengthen rather than undermine public commitment to health-based solutions.


Americans and Canadians share more than a long and undefended border. We share a commitment to democratic principles and an adherence to the same, if unevenly applied, principles of trade. We consume the same brand name goods with the same apparent enthusiasm and read many of the same books and magazines. At night we settle down to the same entertainment and, in winter, our elderly relatives lounge on the same sunlit beaches. And in matters of public policy we share many of the same opinions and attitudes.