AN ADDRESS BY SENATOR PIERRE CLAUDE NOLIN NATIONAL PRESS CLUB WASHINGTON, D.C. Tuesday, April 29, 2003


Ladies and gentlemen, members of the Press Club, first, let me thank the organizers of this important press conference for inviting me, especially Dr Arnold Trebach.

Canadians and presumably Americans deserve national drugs policies that are global, effective and respectful of human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted on December 10, 1948 after the bloodiest war in the history of humankind. Clause 3 states, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

Today, politicians, researchers, lawyers, police officers and medical physicians around the world are no longer afraid to say that the prohibition of so called illegal drugs which led to the war against drugs has been a manifest failure. After having had the honour and privilege of chairing the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs (SSCID), I firmly believe, that for the preservation of life, public health, personal safety, freedom and democracy, this insidious policy, which has not had any beneficial long-term effects, needs to be dismantled.

In 1998, the United Nations agreed, at a special session of the General Assembly to eliminate – or at least significantly reduce – the cultivation of cannabis, coca leaf and opium poppy, as well as the demand for these psychoactive substances, by 2008. Over the past few weeks, representatives of 116 countries met again in Vienna during the 46th session of the United Nations Commission on Drugs of to reaffirm their commitment to, and hence their faith in, prohibition.

And yet the many international conventions and national statutes advocating prohibition over the past century (as well as the attendant introduction of criminal sanctions and the erosion of individual rights as “miracle solutions” to the problem of illegal drugs), have clearly been ineffective in eliminating the supply of and demand for cannabis, cocaine and heroin. In Canada, prohibition officially began with the coming into force of the Opium Act in 1908, whereas in the United States, it became the government’s official policy in 1914 with the Harrison Narcotic Act. Despite the extremely strict statutes passed to deal with users and traffickers, and the billions of dollars spent annually to enforce them or to eradicate the cultivation of drugs in producing countries, these substances can nevertheless still be found in our schoolyards and local communities. According to our report, the policy has had no impact on trends in drug use in Canada, given that at least 40 per cent of young Canadians aged 12 to 17 years – that’s over a million youth – have used cannabis in the past twelve months and 10 per cent, or 225,000, use such drugs every day. How can this failure be explained?

To begin with, international conventions in that past century have been based on a two-tier system, aiming to regulate drugs manufacturing mainly in northern hemisphere’s countries and prohibit illicit organic substances production mainly in the southern hemisphere. In other words, there has been few or no consideration for the real dangers that these drugs present to public health.

Secondly, national illegal drug laws, whose main provisions are based on these international conventions, have always had ambitious objectives other than the protection of public health. I refer here to the protection of conservative moral values or the reach of a drug-free society. That being the case, our report emphasizes the fact that beyond the declared official rationale for these laws, other factors such as racism, prejudice and myths, the development of the pharmaceuticals industry, and the machinery of an enormous nationwide government bureaucracy to enforce restrictive criminal laws for illegal substances, are what underpin prohibition. The criminalization of illicit drug use as a strategy to protect the population from one of the most serious scourges of human history has subtly veiled the real issues at stake in the policy, as well as the way it has ravaged many communities while making it impossible to establish intelligent and efficient prevention and public education programs, and better focused and respectful treatment measures.

Nevertheless, many other models of public policy – ones that place an emphasis on health protection and on reducing the harm caused by drugs and their criminal prohibition– have been developed over the past 30 years in Europe as an alternative to criminal law. And yet, in 1996, Canada’s Parliament adopted the Controlled Drug and Substances Act, which confirmed that prohibition would continue as the approach preferred by the Canadian government.

However, federal authorities’ inability, during the parliamentary debates on this Act, to answer specific questions about their clear objectives, the real effects of cannabis, the criteria used to classify illegal drugs into various categories, the costs involved in enforcing the Act and the historical background to it, made it clear that the time had come to re-evaluate the principles on which Canada’s policy in this area was based. In my view, governments of Canada since 1908, regardless of their political stripe, have shown a wilful blindness, and even an overdose of hypocrisy, in passing prohibition legislation. It is unacceptable that parents, even today, still do not have objective information to deal with the problem use of cannabis by their children, or that police officers should be responsible of prevention programs in our schools!

Four years after this debate, the Senate of Canada established the Special Committee on Illegal Drugs in April 2000 to study this important matter, to intelligently provide information to Canadians, and to recommend appropriate reforms in order to develop a “Canadian solution” on cannabis and other psychoactive substances. In 2001, the Committee’s terms of reference were reduced to the study of cannabis “in context.” The committee heard 234 witnesses, including ordinary Canadians, and rigorously analyzed a phenomenal number of scientific studies on the many facets of the problems involved in cannabis. We also evaluated the policies developed by countries like the United States, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Australia, and organized public hearings in eight Canadian cities. We had also commissioned 16 focus groups to evaluate more accurately the qualitative opinions of Canadians. The committee released its report on September 4, 2002.

The basic argument underlying our report is the following: in a free and democratic society like Canada’s, citizens ought to have the right to make informed decisions about their behaviour, on condition that they do not cause undue harm to others, and the State must favour such autonomous responsibility. We firmly believe that cannabis use falls into this category. We concluded that this substance is no more harmful than tobacco and alcohol, both of which are legal. We questionned why should it not be treated in the same manner? Nevertheless we established that in the name of public health protection, public intervention was needed. Even though we acknowledge that the excessive use of cannabis involves health risks, we found no valid reason to use criminal law, beyond repression of criminal trafficking, as a means of protecting public health in this case.

Since the report’s publication, the media and the U.S. administration authorities have focused primarily on the recommendation that proposes regulating the use and sale of cannabis. Some have accused us of brazenly promoting cannabis, particularly for young people, or eliminating society’s last bastion against the risk of a apprehended increase in the use of this drug or other more harmful illegal substances.

To such criticisms, I would reply that our recommendation needs to be evaluated in the context of the other recommendations in the report. We do not encourage the use of cannabis or other psychoactive substances. We are not encouraging the creation of “open air toxic waste sites” or “drug mini-marts” – to use the words of the Office of the National Drug Control Policy. We simply want governments to be accountable and to empower citizens with respect to the cannabis use phenomenon and all other drugs. Having said that, it is clear for the Committee that legislation, particularly criminal legislation, is only one of the tools of a global, effective and respectful public policy on psychoactive substances.

After having carefully studied these issues, I am convinced that it is essential for Canada to develop an integrated national strategy on the use of all psychoactive substances, based on objective guiding principles on ethics, governance, criminal law and science. Adequate funding levels are essential to strengthen our understanding of the patterns of use and impacts of drugs, thereby making it possible to create and implement innovative prevention and treatment programs, and strict evaluation and monitoring mechanisms. Once the reach for this ambitious objective has been engaged, federal and provincial governments could establish a regulatory framework governing the use and production of cannabis. I am referring here to the concept of legalization with strong government control. As you see, for the Committee, legalization of cannabis does not mean establishing a “free market environment for drugs” like some are arguing.

Over the coming years, pressure from the courts might force the government of Canada to redefine its illegal drug policy to bring it in line with the modern and fundamental values of the Canadian society – compassion, tolerance and respect for individual freedoms, for example – rather than the myths of the past. Let us not forget that in July 2000, the Ontario Court of Appeal, in its highly publicized Parker decision, ruled that a provision of the Controlled Drug and Substances Act was unconstitutional because it prevented people from using cannabis for therapeutic purposes. Indeed, with respect to those suffering from serious illness who use the drug to alleviate pain, the court said that cannabis use posed much less of a health risk than cannabis prohibition. Prohibition was, in fact, contrary to the principles of fundamental justice enshrined in section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This historic decision was not appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. Consequently, it forced the Department of Health to adopt regulations in July 2001 to authorize, the production and use of cannabis for therapeutic purposes. Even though this initiative was roundly condemned by the United States, it was in no way inconsistent with international conventions, which already provided for such exceptions in order to comply with the specific legal and constitutional characteristics of the signatory countries.

After more than two years of hard work, I can say that our committee have succeeded in coming up with an alternative to prohibition that is both promising and innovative. Our proposals are more serious and show more respect for human rights than those that would involve the depenalisation or decriminalization of cannabis. They would allow states to more effectively combat and tackle the growing influence of organized crime or terrorism over the long term, and to provide better public health protection.

Even though I am proud of our recommendations, my experience in politics leads me to be realistic about what the future holds for them. Canada’s geographic position, its major trade relationship with the United States, and issues surrounding border protection and Canada’s international obligations with respect to the control of illegal drugs mean that, if the Canadian government were to decide to act upon our recommendations in the near future, it would have to begin by adopting a new public policy on drugs. My view is that we can do so without any concern. As for the legalization of cannabis, even though Canada is a sovereign country that is free to pass any legislation it deems appropriate for the welfare of its citizens, the legalization of cannabis could only be considered while the United States is also doing so.

Even though many years will likely go by before the dawn of the new day arrives, I am convinced that the days of prohibition are numbered in North America despite the declarations made recently in Vienna. Why? Because Canadians and Americans want rigorous and objective information not only about cannabis and other legal and illegal psychoactive substances, but also about the harmful effects of the war on drugs. They know that all use is not an abuse. They are becoming increasingly aware that the actual policy is a costly failure, and are therefore desperately searching for answers to their legitimate questions. They want transparency in an informed, comprehensive and democratic public debate on these substances. Since September 2002, I have been pleasantly surprised that our report has contributed to generating such debate in Canada and the United States. Only the people can force their governments to put an end to prohibition, and from that standpoint, I believe, in all modesty, that our work constitutes an excellent contribution to the democratic process and to collective thinking on these issues.

The war on drug discourse is outdated and disrespectful; it’s time to empower citizens, individually and collectively, on their responsible behaviour.

We are here today to seek your help fulfilling our important endeavours. Unfortunately, almost a century ago, the enactment of prohibition laws was made possible through public misinformation, in part due to some print media organizations voracious appetite for bigger circulations. Afterward and still, the ongoing “demonization” of psychoactive substances through various films, advertising, news items and publications was the accepted norm without any or almost any manifestation of the traditional and expected scrutiny of the media. It is now the time for you, members of The National Press Club, nationally and internationally renowned and respected, to take place in that debate and play your much needed role. Be part of the solution. Thank you very much.