As a crooning marijuana enthusiast once said: “The times, they are ‘a changin.’” (Bob Dylan is famous for many things—among them, introducing the Beatles to weed, and transforming, as he got older, into Vincent Price’s doppelganger.)
Canada has a reputation for being pretty damn liberal when it comes to our drug policy, especially when compared to our neighbours to the south. But while we’ve been riding high, secure in the knowledge that when it comes to a puff or two of the wacky tobacky we’re way cooler than our American friends, legally, things have changed. The conservative government is doing its best to kill our buzz.
It wasn’t always this way. Back in 2002, with only a few years left until his retirement, Prime Minister Jean Chretien was calling for the decriminalization of pot. It was like your strange musician uncle who always showed up at family dinners smelling like a skunk was suddenly running the country. “Perhaps I will try it when it will no longer be criminal,” he told a Winnipeg newspaper in 2003. “I will have my money for my fine and a joint in the other hand.” (Remember, decriminalization and legalization are not the same thing. With decriminalization, getting caught for possession would carry a fine, but would not go on your criminal record. So it’s not exactly legal—but it doesn’t make you a criminal.)
If you enjoyed the occasional recreational toke, things were looking up. Just a few years earlier, Canada became the first country to adopt a formal system to regulate the medical use of marijuana, awarding federal licenses to growers. And Canada had just opened North America’s first safe injection site in Vancouver, providing clean syringes, medical treatment and counseling services to addicts.
Meanwhile, down south, the United States’ War On Drugs was still going strong. America’s prisons were overcrowded, and there was a growing sense that the criminal drug trade was marginalizing blacks and Hispanics. (In 2002, for example, African Americans accounted for 13 per cent of the population, but 37 per cent per cent of drug arrests.)
Compared to that, Canadian policymakers looked like hippies. What? In America, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug, beside heroin. Whoa, man. Chill. If someone needs to take the edge off because they’ve got a serious illness, why not? Like our publicly funded welfare and health care systems, our attitudes towards personal and medical drug use felt like a reflection of deep-rooted Canadian values. That, you know, this is just how we Canadians are, eh?
The thing is, that’s been more the exception than the norm.
Here’s a surprise: Marijuana possession was made illegal in Canada in 1923, almost fifteen years before the U.S. government did the same. Canada and the US both banned opium within a few years of each other, but we here up north banned the sale of cocaine in 1911, three years before the U.S. did. Our drug policies have always mirrored each other pretty closely.
The one thing that has pretty much always been true, however, is that our punishment has been less harsh. Possession of small amounts of marijuana often means nothing more than a warning or a slap on the wrist. In fact, after the drug was banned in the twenties, it took fourteen years for the first charges to be laid.
Fast forward to the present day. Chretien’s marijuana decriminalization never went through. Harper, awarded his first majority conservative government, passed the Safe Streets and Communities Act, which doubled the maximum penalty for schedule II drugs (for example, marijuana). It also introduced, for the first time, mandatory minimum prison sentences for growing as few as six plants.
Ironically, this legislation came into force on November 6, the same day that Washington and Colorado both legalized the use of pot for recreational use. They legalized it, not decriminalized it, going further than our crazy hippy uncle Prime Minister ever even hinted at.
So as Canada trends towards more severe punishment, the United States has taken huge strides towards a more liberal attitude towards cannabis. That’s right, Mr. Dylan. The times they are a’ changin,’ eh?