Craig Jones holds a political economy doctorate from Queen’s University. He maintains a large library of evidence and research on the global prohibition of cannabis and has published, taught and lectured on drug and criminal justice policy since the late 1990s. Before joining NORML Canada, a non-profit committed to eliminating civil and criminal penalties for private marijuana use through government lobbying, public education, and research, he was Executive Director of the John Howard Society of Canada and a Health Sciences policy analyst at Queen’s University.
As the Executive Director of NORML Canada, in what way is your job related to drug policy?
The organization has been around since the mid-1970s, following the publication and quiet death of the Le Dain Commission reports, which called for “rolling back” the criminal justice system in regards to drugs.
One of the key statements, to my mind, is that the criminal justice system tends to make worse what is already problematic when it comes to changing personal behaviour of individuals, particularly when that behaviour is essentially self-consensual.
So the Le Dain Commission died a quiet death with the ramping-up of the US-based ‘war on drugs,’ and NORML came along to try to encourage governments to adopt recommendations that echoed the Le Dain Commission report because there was a similar report from the United States at the same time that came, essentially, to the same conclusion. The general agreement among the experts was that if the major government pursued a strategy of prohibition, it would essentially replicate the prohibition of alcohol, resulting in organized crime and all the misery and suffering that we have seen ever since. That is the origin of NORML Canada. Our bottom-line is not pro-cannabis, it is not anti-cannabis; we favour what I call the ‘modernization’ of cannabis drug policies, bringing them into compliance with the best evidence and the best practices on how to manage psychotropic substances. And, because cannabis is overwhelmingly the most commonly used illicit drug, taking cannabis off the table makes a huge difference to the impact of the war on drugs.
What does ‘sensible drug policy’ look like to you?
Number one, you have to know something about the history of how drugs came to be illegal in this country. I presume you know that the origin of cannabis drug policy was racist in intent and purpose, and that racist, punitive template persists to this day. So, sensible drug policy looks like drug policy based on public health rather than criminal justice principles.
What are your thoughts on the UNGASS “World Drug Problem” meeting this April?
Until quite recently, there has not been a lot of reason to feel optimistic about UNGASS, because UNGASS has been the institutional ‘motor,’ on a global scale, of the war on drugs, largely buttressed by the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the White House. Washington, DC, has been, until quite recently, the home address of the global war on drugs. That has begun to change for a variety of reasons. There is some reason to be slightly more optimistic [about UNGASS] today.
You must have seen in the newspaper recently the Canadian delegation received a standing ovation from the delegates of the pre-UNGASS meetings for their call for harm-reduction, and public health principles in drug policy. There are meetings happening in New York now, in the lead-up to UNGASS, and the Canadian delegation got up and delivered a talk calling for harm reduction, trumpeting the success of Insite in Vancouver, and before they were finished delivering their address, apparently, the other delegates were on their feet applauding the Canadian position.
There have been a number of changes to the global situation, for example, Uruguay, Portugal, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Washington, DC, and the success of the war on drugs. This is to say nothing of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which came out with a very strong statement a couple of years ago, pointing out that the war on drugs has produced unintended consequences worse than the use of drugs themselves. I think there is reason to be cautiously optimistic that we may be in the early days of the end of the war on drugs.
If the United States election returns Republican, it’s quite possible that the progress in the United States could be reversed. At this moment, I think it is quite possible that Barack Obama’s legacy will be that he began the process, but it’s going to be a long process to end the war on drugs. But if a Republican takes the White House, it can go 180 degrees in the opposite direction.
How do you think Canada should implement cannabis legalization?
NORML Canada does not speak with one voice on this issue; there are people in the organization who prefer a more libertarian, market-based solution, and there are people in the organization who prefer a more public regime. The people on the libertarian-right argue, with justice, that cannabis prohibition was an error in 1923, and that all we have to do is return to the pre-prohibition era of 1922 and let the market work out according to its own logic about what the regime should be. The people on the public health-left argue that we have a great deal of experience [with] regulating psychotropic substances, principally alcohol and tobacco, and that we should poach the best lessons from the regulation of alcohol and tobacco for the regulation of cannabis. Those are the two positions that have a voice. There’s not much more to add to that, as it really comes down to that polarity: public health versus free-market.
In light of the Liberal’s plan to legalize marijuana in Canada, it is being suggested that the legal purchasing age should be 24-25, rather than 19 like the alcohol and tobacco purchasing age in most provinces. Do you think that setting a higher marijuana purchasing age is an effective strategy for preventing or discouraging use by youth?
I think it is impossible to enforce, number one. Number two, it does not make any sense to raise the legal age limit to 24 or 25 if the legal age for alcohol is 19, or 18 in Quebec, because alcohol is by far the more dangerous substance, and everybody acknowledges that. Even critics acknowledge that alcohol is a more dangerous substance. As a practical matter, it would be impossible to enforce, and the same is true of limiting or prohibiting home growing. If you want to limit home growing, or prohibit it, you have to account for the policy costs of enforcing that, and those are going to be very, very steep. Governments should not, in my opinion, take on or advocate for policies [in which] the costs of enforcing are unreasonably high. The policy costs of enforcing against home production would basically replicate the costs of prohibition, and I think it would be unreasonably intrusive, and just extremely expensive, to be busting people for growing a half-dozen plants. Furthermore, I think we already have the regulatory regimes in place on the municipal and provincial levels to create a safe environment for people to grow at home.
If you are really serious about preventing people from making their own wine, you are going to have to set up a massive police bureaucracy to go house-to-house and shut down individual wine production.