Drug History Canada

Musings on the history of drugs in Canada.

Tag: cannabis

Good drugs and their bad tendencies

After several decades of working on this (ok, worked on it in the 90s then took some time away) my book, When Good Drugs Go Bad: Opium, Medicine, and the Origins of Canada’s Drug Laws has been released.

You can order a copy of the hardcover here.

And for reference, here is a picture of the cover.  Below I will tell you more about it.

Malleck - Good drugs - cover image

In this book I look at the origins of Canada’s drug laws, the century or so before the creation of the Opium Act, 1908, and the Opium and Drugs Act, 1911.

My main question was simple: where did the idea come from that some drugs were bad and needed to be regulated. It may seem simplistic, but beneath this question are a bunch of related issues: Why is addiction considered a problem?; what is wrong with recreational drug use? How did the idea that government should be involved in the regulation of drugs come about?

These may seem odd questions, but they really are fundamental to our understanding of current debates over drug laws and drug use.

For example, we seem to have this idea that recreation is an illegitimate application of chemicals.  That is, you can take drugs for pain killing, to heal, to allow children to focus, to reduce coughs, and to get rid of the sniffles, but once you enjoy them purely for the sake of enjoyment, you are misusing drugs.

Here we get this idea of “drug abuse” which is linguistically connected to things like child abuse and spousal abuse, but in this way we’re really considered to be abusing ourselves by using drugs in a way other than one medically acceptable.

Why was medicine the only legitimate use of such substances?  How did physicians get that kind of power?  Why are pharmacists the ones who should be managing the sale of drugs?

The book takes a long view, stretching back to pre confederation, to look at the various uses of drugs, and the different ways that people began to suggest there are legitimate and illegitimate uses of them. It traces the creation of provincial pharmacy laws, which I argue are Canada’s first drug laws.  Here the idea emerged that the trade in certain substances should be governed by small groups of educated men rather than allowing the free market to do its thing.  Once you establish the idea that some things should be controlled by government pronouncement, and you deputize groups of professionals to do the controlling, that scope of control can be broadened. The idea of controlling drugs that could kill you broadens to include controlling drugs that could hurt you. Then the idea of “hurt” expands to include not just maim or debilitate, but perhaps just make you need them all the time (habituation, or addiction).

It’s a complex story, and one that needed to be told for Canada.

I hope you enjoy it. Buy multiple copies.  Christmas is coming, after all!

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Media II: the morning after the referenda

Two more states voted for various forms of cannabis legalization. The District of Columbia also voted to permit marijuana possession. Several municipalities in New England passed similar initiatives.

These are big deals. How they will play out in Canada (if at all) is a good topic of debate.

I spoke to Yahoo News about this, and they published an article reflecting on the potential impact.

It is available here

As noted in the article, I think that the most interesting part of these outcomes is in Oregon, where the existing Liquor Commission will take on the role of regulation. (In Alaska a similar situation would be temporary, with a Marijuana Control Board possibly taking over). Since we have liquor commissions or liquor boards in all provinces, it makes for a good template for a legalization framework.

I should note, with due diligence, that I mis-remembered the Washington State law. It also puts the regulation of cannabis in the hands of the state liquor control board. Don’t ask me how I misremembered it, ok? These things happen on busy days when you’re asked to respond quickly.

Other links

Some of the answers to questions bout Oregon’s marijuana laws

Oregon’s Measure 91 – Cannabis legalization framework

Information on Alaska’s measure

Colorado’s Marijuana Amendment 64

Washington State’s marijuana initiative