In response to the riots that arose from the labor demonstrations, Deputy Minister of Labor, Mackenzie King, went to British Columbia. During his investigation of the labor riots he interviewed two opium merchants and was shocked by the existence of the opium trade in British Columbia (Solomon and Green 1988:91). King had four main concerns: (1) opium smoking was becoming more popular among white people, (2) the Chinese were making vast profits in the opium trade, (3) opium trade was in violation of provincial pharmacy legislation, and finally, (4) as a Christian nation, Canada had to set an example for an international campaign against opium (Solomon and Green 1988). The elimination of the opium “menace” was to become the primary focus of King’s early political career. Under his leadership, Parliament enacted its first prohibitionist drug policy (Tooley 1999:25). "The 1908 Opium Act made it an indictable offence to import, manufacture, offer to sell, sell, or possess to sell opium for non medical purposes, but prohibited neither simple possession or use" (Solomon and Green 1988:92).
In 1911, the 1908 Opium Act was repealed in favor of even harsher legislation. The 1908 Opium Act had created a black market for opium, and law enforcement interests believed that the way to stop the demand for opium was to create harsher penalties (including imprisonment) and to expand enforcement powers (Solomon and Green 1988:93). The 1911 Act began the “enforcement” phase of Canadian drug policy which continued unchallenged until the 1950s (Tooley 1999:26). Because there were no advocates for the treatment of drug users prior to the late 1950s, it was easy for enforcement-related interests to implement harsh anti-drug legislation. This also meant that although drug users were often thought of as “sick,” imprisonment was a priority over treatment (Blackwell 1988:163). In addition, because habitual drug use was associated mostly with Chinese immigrants, many Canadians felt they were “immune from the effects of harsh drug legislation" (Alexander 1990:32).
During the 1950s, despite the fact that illegal drug use was declining, the media published highly sensational accounts of drug addicted youth in Canada (Solomon and Green 1988:102). It was during this period that the idea of treating habitual drug users first became significant. Some physicians came to see drug addiction as their territory because it was beginning to be looked upon as a disease instead of a crime. They believed that addiction should be regarded as a social and medical problem, not a criminal one (Alexander 1990:114). In response to the increased calls of the medical community for the treatment of drug users, the federal government established the Senate Special Committee on the Traffic of Narcotic Drugs in Canada in 1955 (Solomon and Green 1988:104). After holding hearings across the country, however, the Committee ended up favoring the view of the law enforcement community and this was eventually reflected in the highly punitive 1961 Narcotic Control Act.
The criminalization of drugs in Canada was made possible because of the strongly held belief that certain drugs had the ability to enslave users (Erickson 1992:247). By the 1960s and 1970s, these beliefs were being questioned and the criminalization of drugs was challenged by the emerging “public health” movement. The “dope fiend” mythology, which the enforcement bureaucracy had used for several decades to justify strict prohibition, became discredited because large numbers of middle class youth were using illicit drugs recreationally without turning into dangerous lunatics. Thus, the social distance between drug users and mainstream society narrowed considerably. When a substantial proportion of the population is engaging in drug use it is difficult to maintain myths that are not supported by experience. Most of the people arrested on drug charges during the “cannabis controversy” did not fit the “drug fiend” stereotype, and the law was criticized for making criminals out of white middle class youth.
In 1969, the Commission of Inquiry into the Non Medical Use of Drugs (also known as the Le Dain Commission) studied the illicit drug issue in Canada. Between 1969 and 1973, the Commission produced four reports. The most significant point in one of the reports was the recommendation of the gradual withdrawal of criminalization of illegal drugs (Erickson and Smart 1988:336). "The Commission recommended greater leniency for the crime of possession including the abolishment of imprisonment. The Commission also recommended that the possession of cannabis should not be considered an offence. Despite the Le Dain Commission's recommendations, Canada's drug policy remained unchanged" (p. 339).
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