By Erika Dyck and Lucas Richert
In 2001 Health Canada approved the use of medical marijuana for a strict list of health complaints ranging from different pain applications to seizures from epilepsy. During the last federal election in 2015, Justin Trudeau boldly promised to go further down the path of legalization, suggesting that he will decriminalize possession for recreational use.
A month after this election promise, The Economist showcased the blurry future of Canadian pot and suggested, “converting a medical-marijuana industry into a recreational one will not be easy.” While legalization is probable under the newly elected Trudeau Liberals, many questions will have to be addressed and the transition could be rocky. As a Colorado marijuana enforcement official told the National Post, “It’s going to be a lot harder to implement than you think. It’s going to take a lot longer to do it. And it’s going to cost more than you think…”
The Liberal campaign promise of legalization has invited a new host of critics. John Ivison has reconceived of Canada Post as Canada Pot, the major domestic system of distribution throughout the country. Sylvain Charlebois deems marijuana a “gateway” drug with high upside. Dan Malleck has argued that liquor control boards should control recreational marijuana, whereas Ronan Levy has suggested that the recent Allard ruling will create regulatory uncertainty at a most inopportune time.
Regulating marijuana use remains highly contested and the path forward is anything but obvious, but historically there are some insights into drug regulation that may prove helpful in informing the public debates over the next chapter of ‘reefer madness’. Historians have a vital role to play in these debates, particularly for their capacity to weave together a big picture narrative amongst the cacophony of players from policymakers, journalists, physicians, researchers, interest groups, recreational users and the pharmaceutical industry, each of whom have been investing in their own particular messages about the pleasures and pitfalls of pot.
A quick and cursory examination of the historical record indicates that knowledge about medicines and drug use has not only been founded upon empirically based medical evidence, but is also a reflection of cultural values, political circumstances, economic realities, available technologies and other socially-mediated and historically-contingent factors, leading to cycles and patterns of medical approbation and condemnation. This has been the case with lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) or cocaine or mainline pharmaceutical products.
Contemporary deliberations over marijuana have focused on which drugs should be accessible for people nearing the end-of-life. At the same time, discussions in the media have also problematized the limits of appropriate use in modern medicine and challenged us to think about the proper balance between research, access, and consumer protection. Finally, other conversations have centred on law enforcement and variability in policy across jurisdictions. Canadian historians, including Catherine Carstairs, Jacalyn Duffin, Marcel Martel, Craig Heron, Cheryl Warsh, and many others have dealt with these subjects before in their accounts of drug regulation from opium to liquor and even to marijuana.
In this series of articles, we bring some of those players into conversation with historians as we consider the tenuous balance between consumers and regulators, the Canadian physician as unwanted gatekeepers, marijuana as a measure (and potential leveler) of inequities, and the rocky emergence of the medical marijuana industry. While much of the media coverage has pitted these players off against one another, we aim to enrich the dialogue by blurring these boundaries and developing some big picture analysis of the cannabis debates.