Cover Story

Pot legislation: promises to keep

Roy MacGregor April 2 1979
Cover Story

Pot legislation: promises to keep

Roy MacGregor April 2 1979

Pot legislation: promises to keep

Cover Story

In Ottawa last Thursday, Solicitor General Jean-Jacques Blais advised the Commons justice committee that the government’s long-promised change in the marijuana law was still in the works—two long months after Justice Minister Marc Lalonde said his department was proceeding “on an urgent basis.” Whatever the hitch has been, it isn’t to be found in the House, for both Joe Clark and Ed Broadbent have looked into the red eyes of their nation and agreed that something must be done; nor is it a problem with the Social Credit party, though Lalonde tried to suggest that, for they, too, are now in agreement. More likely, it is simply a case of the Liberals, given the choice between playing out the remaining time of this Parliament by debating their referendum bill or introducing new, highly volatile drug legislation, will likely opt for the quieter route.

One of those most disturbed by this possibility is Ottawa's A.J. (Andy) Rapoch, the executive director of NORML Canada, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “One page, a few hours’ debate," Rapoch says “That's all it would take to stop making criminals of marijuana smokers.” The bare bones of the legislative change would be merely to shift hashish and marijuana—the so-called "soft drugs”—from the Narcotic Control Act (where they room uneasily with heroin) over to the Food and Drugs Act. Mere possession for personal use would then become a minor offence, subject to a maximum first-time fine of $500. And it would mean an end to criminal records for pot smokers, which by Lalonde’s own count, haunt 250,000 Canadians.

Rapoch and his 1,500-member organization are now starting to believe the government has been conning them all along. So sure of the change was NORML at one point that an elaborate “Joint Benefit” was held at Ottawa's Civic Centre. Fully a thousand supporters showed up (at $5 a head, no pun intended) to celebrate the “victory.” They honestly felt—with 46 per cent of

the Gallup poll calling for decriminalization and the Canadian Bar Association endorsing it—that the changes were but a hurried three readings away. But it did not happen and likely will not before the election.

As far back as 1968—a year in which 1,097 Canadians were convicted for possession—the Liberal party was already saying it was time for a more “openminded approach.” They even went so far as to appoint the Le Dain inquiry into the non-medical use of drugs, and in 1970— 6,720 convictions that year—the commission declared: "The harm caused by a conviction for simple possession appears to be out of all proportion to any good that it is likely to achieve.” Two years later— coincidentally just prior to a federal election—there was again talk of “softening” the laws, but by year's end nothing had been done and there were 12,169 further convictions 'to add to the total.

In 1975 (27,602 convictions) there finally was actual legislation produced, but the government for some reason chose to introduce the bill first in the Senate. There, it passed with rheumatoid speed and eventually died on the Commons order paper. Still, the issue continued to burn: on March 24, 1977, Prime Minister Trudeau told a group of university students that, “If you have a joint and you're smoking it for your own pleasure, the government’s policy is that you shouldn’t be hassled ” By year’s, end there were some 37,813 further convictions.

NORML’S Andy Rapoch claims there are three million cannabis smokers in Canada. “We make up 10 to 15 per cent of the electorate,” he says. “They’re all undecided voters. Most of them don't care and don’t vote.”

Last week each member of Parliament in Ottawa received a letter from a dozen highranking Canadian doctors urging extreme caution in this contentious matter, and the betting now is that caution is precisely what the government will exercise, despite J-J Blais’s statement that he has a draft of the legislation ready Rapoch says, “If they don't do something now, then that will be the worst kind of political folly on their part.” But the truth is that doing nothing is often the best political strategy.

Roy MacGregor