Giselle Dias
Prisoners HIV/AIDS Support Action Network

It is time to recognize what is patently obvious: our policies [on cannabis] have been ineffective, because they are poor policies.
      --Report of the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs


The origin of Canada's anti-drug laws in 1908 had little to do with the dangers associated with illicit drug use--these laws were based on public fear as well as on political and monetary gains (Gordon 1994:8). Since the inception of these laws, drug users have been marginalized and minorities have been targeted. The social and economic cost of illegal drugs affects many aspects of society. Many people believe that illegal drugs result in lower productivity, extra costs to health care, business loss, and significant law enforcement costs; specifically police, courts, and prisons (Oscapella 1998). The purpose of this article is to argue that it is not the use of illicit drugs that generates the majority of drug-related harms, but the criminalization and prohibition of these substances. I will argue that Canada's prohibitionist drug laws unnecessarily increase incarceration and crime rates. I will demonstrate that if we adopted more liberal approaches to drug control, as they have in countries such as England, the Netherlands and Switzerland, crime rates in Canada would decrease significantly.


Up until 1908, the use of opiates in Canada was unregulated. In fact, the use of alcohol and tobacco were considered more of a problem to public health and morals than opiates (Solomon and Green 1988:88). However, there was a close link between the escalation of anti drug policies and the public's fear of Chinese immigrants (Alexander 1990:50). From as early as the 1850s, Chinese immigrants were filtering into British Columbia in large numbers. Most did not have families to support and were able to work for low wages. They were considered a cheap source of labor for the railroads, mining and other industries in western Canada (Solomon and Green 1988:89). During this time period, the Chinese lived in communities that were relatively isolated and the smoking of opium and the presence of opium dens were not considered harmful. The government's concerns over opium were more financial than anything else, as they saw opium as a “cash cow” (p. 89). When British Columbia joined the confederation in 1871, the federal government placed a five hundred dollar licensing fee on Chinese opium factories (pp. 89 90).

During the 1880's, the Chinese became an “economic threat” to other Canadians. The decline of the railroads and the gold rush meant fewer employment opportunities overall. Canadians with families could not compete with the wages of unmarried Chinese laborers (Solomon and Green 1988:90). As economic conditions deteriorated, the Chinese became a greater target for resentment and fear. Hostility towards Chinese began to be reflected in legislation, which was designed to end Chinese immigration and drive the Chinese out of the economic mainstream in Canada. By 1904, the tax on Chinese immigrants had risen to $500 per person. While this seemed to slow Chinese immigration to Canada, Japanese immigration into B.C. started to rise dramatically (Tooley 1999:25). This further fueled anti Asiatic sentiment and Canadian hostility. It was after a major labor demonstration in 1907 (which was directed against Japanese immigrants) that the passing of The Opium Act of 1908 took place. This was Canada's first anti-drug legislation.