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Copyright 1997 The Ottawa Citizen

Ottawa Citizen Online National News


Saturday, January 25, 1997

The joint proposal

By Richard Starnes
Citizen fitness and nutrition writer

T ake yourself back to the free-flowing, devil-may-care, swing-along '60s. Duncan Jessiman, respected 40-something Winnipeg lawyer, sips his drink contentedly. He's 10 years older than the rest but this is a good party with intelligent people. He looks around, frowns and walks over to a group huddled together in a cloud of smoke.

"Are you smoking marijuana or hash or something like that? Because if you are, I'm out of here. It's a great party, but I'm a lawyer and I have a reputation." The toking stops, the party continues. Jessiman doesn't like drugs.

That was then.

Now move ahead to the money-tight, job-starved, nervous and neo-conservative '90s.

Duncan Jessiman, respected 70-something senator, eases back in an armchair in his Wellington Street office. He has never smoked, never will. But in the past nine months he has astonished even himself. He believes marijuana smoking should no longer be a criminal offence, and wonders if the personal use of all drugs should be decriminalized.

At 73, Jessiman has gone mellow.

His conversion has been the most remarkable on the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee charged with studying C-8, the Controlled Drugs and Substances Bill, which arrived in 1995 from the House of Commons.

The committee is made up of 11 senators who hold various positions on the weed and other illegal drugs. To the surprise of many, it came close to recommending that the smoking of marijuana should no longer be a criminal offence.

In the end, it didn't go that far. Only minor marijuana changes agreed to when the bill was originally debated in the Commons are included in the final version of the legislation, which received royal assent last fall but won't be enacted until the Justice Department has finished writing the new regulations. There is still no definite date for the rules to take effect.

The changes will make simple possession a less serious crime. People found guilty of possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana will still receive up to six months in jail or a $1,000 fine. But the guilty will no longer be fingerprinted and, with no fingerprints on the RCMP database, the offence will be difficult for prospective employers or authorities at international borders to trace.

These are not the changes that Duncan Jessiman wanted. They're not even close.

Extraordinary, really, that a man of 73 should be so willing to carry this torch. It's as if all those toking, hell-raising baby boomers of the '60s have disappeared in a puff of sweet-smelling smoke.

The bearded, beaded, often a little befuddled ones who made so much not-so-mellow noise about how they would change the world - how they would become lawyers, judges and politicians and change the idiotic law that made pot smoking illegal.

Those people went very quiet.

Some did become lawyers and judges, of course. But like most of the rest of their generation, they also relaxed their views about pot, and now who don't know what to answer when asked about their teenage toking habits by their own children.

Others became politicians who are in a position to make change but refuse to do so because it might be bad for job security and there are absolutely no public points to gain by doing so.

People like Health Minister David Dingwall, who said of decriminalization last year: "My government does not believe that it's in the public interest."

A far cry from what Pierre Trudeau told University of Toronto students 20 years ago. He said "the spirit of government policy ... is that if you have a joint and you're smoking it for your private pleasure ... you shouldn't be hassled."

And whatever happened to the 1977 Liberal throne speech, which called for an end to jailing people for individual possession? Nothing, that's what.

So, nearly two decades later, just how did Jessiman and a majority of his 10 Senate colleagues end up supporting marijuana decriminalization? And why couldn't they get it done?

Jessiman pulls material from a file on his lap. It's from The National Review, a premier magazine of conservative opinion in the U.S., which devoted its February 1995 issue to the war on drugs in the United States.

When he first read it, he could hardly believe his eyes. Here were the mayor of Baltimore, a former police chief turned research fellow with the Hoover Institute, a New York district judge, a vice mayor of New York, a Yale Law School professor and the magazine's publisher, renowned writer, broadcaster and scholar William F. Buckley Jr., all coming to the same conclusion: The war against soft drugs is as fruitless as Prohibition was with alcohol.

Jessiman read that, just like Canada, the United States is shelling out massive amounts of money trying to defeat a problem through the legal system.

In the U.S., $750 billion is spent every year on drug enforcement, $700 billion is spent every year by drug consumers and 400,000 police are used attempting to enforce the law. In 1992, Canada spent $1.37 billion coping with illicit drugs - that's $48 per person.

About two-thirds of the more than 50,000 Canadian drug charges every year involve marijuana. And 65 per cent of those offences are for individual use. As if that's not enough, at least half a million Canadians have criminal records for possession.

"As a result of reading this article quite thoroughly ... it really got me thinking. I looked into it further and began questioning people about it," Jessiman says.

His eyes give off an enthusiastic sparkle. The National Review has not been his only source for sober second thought. Mounds of material from researchers crossed the desk in his comfortable Senate office, not all of which he has waded through. But he's certainly taken in more than his share.

He talks about how 50 per cent of Americans in jail are there for drug violations.

He talks about uneven application of the law in Canada, calling it unfair to enforce it to the letter in small communities "where police have more time on their hands." And then often ignore it in places like Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.

He talks about Singapore "where they hang you or shoot you or whatever" when you get caught. And about the Netherlands where, like Canada, smoking is illegal but, unlike Canada, "there's 4,000 coffee houses where they sell it and almost encourage it," and where they don't prosecute.

He talks about the parade of people offering the committee perspectives on the subject.

The Addiction Research Foundation, touted as the largest centre for research into alcohol and other drug problems in North America, told him and his committee cohorts:

Tobacco is smoked regularly by more than 30 per cent of Canadians and caused around 38,000 deaths in 1991 for a rate of 177 deaths per 100,000; by contrast, the rate of drug-related deaths - licit and illicit - was 1.8 per 100,000 in 1991.

One in four adult Canadians has tried cannabis.

One in 12 currently uses it.

After hearing and questioning 40 witnesses over 10 meetings, it became increasingly clear to Jessiman that sending people to jail for smoking marijuana is not helping them. Resources would be better spent dealing with the problem as a social and health problem, not a criminal one.

The evidence, both for and against, flows thick and fast. And it's evidence that has put Jessiman, the Conservative, in the same camp as fellow Winnipegger and committee member Senator Sharon Carstairs, the Liberal.

"Anti-drug advocates made the point that it (marijuana) was the first rung on the ladder to hard drugs," says Carstairs. "One does lead to another. But what we couldn't see any proof of was that because you had marijuana you were going to become a drug addict. If it was, we'd have an awful lot of drug addicts and that's just not there."

One committee member has been a staunch supporter of decriminalization for at least 20 years. Dick Doyle, former editor of The Globe and Mail, has been in the camp for change since 1972.

That was when Gerald LeDain's royal commission into how to deal with drugs called for repeal of the offence of simple possession of cannabis.

Doyle agreed and said so in the Globe.

"We decided casual use should be legalized, which was a complete switch in thinking on my part."

Like Jessiman now, he was bothered by the uneven application of the law. "If there is a law you do not intend to enforce without some vigor, you are better off without it. If you held a rock concert and they were all smoking up, no-one was arrested."

Not surprisingly, the Globe stance was a stunner. It was not the general media view and no one else was as outright in declaring opinions.

Any doubts Doyle may have had about that position have since been allayed. "I wondered then if I was wrong but today's presentation of information tells me differently."

And what next? Doyle is convinced change will come - eventually. "They are old, worn-out laws and I think it (legalization) will happen to marijuana. But probably not in my time."

So, with a majority on the Senate committee ready to send C-8 back to the Commons demanding decriminalization, why didn't it happen?

Caucus trouble, that's why. It became immediately clear that some members were convinced Canadians wouldn't buy the idea. Some were worried about the effect on a looming election and some were philosophically opposed to the whole idea.

Chairwoman Carstairs explains.

"When Senator (Pierre) Nolin (another decriminalization supporter) took that back to his Tory caucus, he was clearly told he did not have the support of that caucus. It was also clear I didn't have the support of Liberals in my caucus. It was going nowhere."

In the end, all parties settled on the changes to C-8 that make a criminal record harder to detect.

And the Senate group called for a joint Commons-Senate committee "to review all of Canada's existing drug laws and policies and programs."

Meanwhile, a House of Commons Standing Committee on Health is already reviewing drug laws and policies.

That committee is expected to report in June. But Carstairs has heard nothing about letting the Senate join in.

And that's disappointing for Jessiman, who cannot understand why the whole world isn't rife with studies on how to deal with the subject - even if politicians are afraid to tackle it.

"We should be doing video conferencing with people all over the world," he says. He leans forward in his chair. "I would be very interested in trying to do more than just reading. I want to talk to authorities all over the world."

Jessiman is serious. He leaves no doubt he regards this as one of the most important health and social issues of our time.

And he wants to do something about it.