The secret shame of Maclean’s

A history of moral panic about marijuana in Canada


A couple of weeks ago I ordered a copy of Emily Murphy’s The Black Candle (1922), the notorious, influential book that first defined drugs as a social problem in Canada, introduced the public to their varieties and effects, and led directly to the addition of marijuana to the Restricted List in 1923. I placed the order after reading the Sept. 3 Seattle Times op-ed by John McKay, the former U.S. attorney who (in connivance with our federal ministry) had Marc Emery extradited and jailed. McKay, forced out of his job because of political controversies and tergiversations you’d need a scorecard to comprehend, is now a professor of law. His editorial was a tub of ordure hurled backwards at his own career: in it, he characterized U.S. marijuana law as a parade of blind idiocies that enriches criminals and gets cops killed unnecessarily.

Having left law enforcement, McKay had the chutzpah to add that prohibition survives partly because “no one in law enforcement is talking about it.” Apparently they like to wait until they have tenure. I’d say his belated gesture of courage deserves something like the reward given to the naval gunner in Victor Hugo’s Quatrevingt-treize who leaves a cannon unsecured below decks and heroically brings it under control. In the book, the commander pins the Cross of St. Louis on the man’s breast—and immediately orders him shot.

One thing that struck me about McKay’s article, though, is how he admits that “our 1930s-era marijuana prohibition was overkill from the beginning”. How much more so was Canada’s? Few states outlawed cannabis as early as Canada did; the pretext was provided by Judge Murphy. It was in a fit of consciousness of original sin that I ordered the book, having written about it years ago. The judge would understand, for we come from the same fanatical Presbyterian stock and dwell upon the same unforgiving spot on the map; and now, as it happens, I have joined the staff of Maclean’s, the organ primarily responsible for promoting moral panic on her behalf back in the day.

The guilt ought to lie heavy upon us, for Murphy’s reflections on “Marijuana—A New Menace” are, as McKay’s remark suggests, nonsense—lurid, racist, sexually pathological, self-contradicting old-lady balderdash that openly pre-empts the whole notion of evidentiary support. “There are plenty of folk,” writes Murphy, “who pretend to themselves that they yield to narcotic enchantment in a desire for research and not for sensual gratification…but, however kindly in judgment, one finds these statements hard to credit, and even if credited, only demonstrates these persons as rascals-manifest.” (Gotta love that hyphen.)

We thus ought to trust other authorities, Murphy suggests: one such is the Chief of Police of Los Angeles, California, who tells her that “Persons using this narcotic smoke the dried leaves of the plant, which has the effect of driving them completely insane. The addict loses all sense of moral responsibility. Addicts to this drug, while under its influence, are immune to pain, and could be severely injured without having any realization of their condition. While in this condition they become raving maniacs and are liable to kill or indulge in any form of violence to other persons, using the most savage methods of cruelty…If this drug is indulged in to any great extent, it ends in the untimely death of its addict.” A medical informant adds that the drug is used to induce “hallucinations which are commonly sexual in character among Eastern races.” Murphy, having double-checked this information in the Encyclopedia Britannica, expresses skepticism but does attest that “It is…a peculiarity of hasheesh that its fantasia almost invariably takes Oriental form.”

In summary—says a magistrate who decided the fates of poor and miserable people in my city within the memory of persons still living—”there are three ways out from the regency of this addiction: 1st—Insanity. 2nd—Death. 3rd—Abandonment.” We must beware of judging Murphy by the standards of our own time, of course. She was almost totally unfamiliar with marijuana, so she formed a view of it using the cognitive tools available to her—a strong education, a wide correspondence, and a practical knowledge of the social effects of drugs in general.

But that view was substantially influenced, if not determined, by Murphy’s white-supremacist race-hygiene ideology. And she was not merely typical of her time in that regard: she was an unrelenting extremist, someone who could hardly write twenty consecutive words without expressing fear of Anglo-Celtic “degeneration” or remarking defensively upon “the superiority of the Northmen”. It may be timely to observe that new laws are normally midwived by terrors such as these, and that, in general, we have to live with those laws long after the terrors are dispersed and forgotten.


The secret shame of Maclean’s

  1. The history of North American law making on vice issues in brief. Excellent points, well put.

  2. And today the magazine continues to publish the histronics of Mark Steyn.

    Perhaps they knew how to make a syndicated buck or two by preying on a certain demographic back then , as well?

    • Exactly.

    • Heh. Well put.

    • I agree vis-a-vis Stein. But consider this line:

      "It may be timely to observe that new laws are normally midwived by terrors such as these, and that, in general, we have to live with those laws long after the terrors are dispersed and forgotten."

      Will you social democrats be remembering this logic when a public shooting like Ecole Polytechnic occurs and histrionics start being raised in the name of gun control?

    • You're the gift that keeps on giving, Mike. Register and watch your rating soar!

  3. It may be timely to observe that new laws are normally midwived by terrors such as these, and that, in general, we have to live with those laws long after the terrors are dispersed and forgotten.

    i.e. long gun registry. Clever.

  4. Murphy plagiarized William Randolph Hearst of the NY Times whose capacity to fabricate egregious nonsense for profit was unbounded. I wonder what her reward for such a fraud was…

  5. I think law enforcement does discuss it. I saw a very interesting documentary on prohibition – on Global of all places – a few years back and there were many police officers (street-level officers, mind you) discussing how much of their resources are wasted on the War on Drugs and how it props up organized crime. It's always interesting how silent a lot of libertarians can be on this issue, though.

    • Really? Aren't the libertarians a great deal less silent about it than the liberals?

      • Do you mean liberals or Liberals? The former don't seem silent to me, at least the ones I know. If you're referring to the latter, Ignatieff has already told kids not to do the drugs…

        • I had the chattering classes in mind–I'm not sure how a columnist or bloviator could self-identify as libertarian WITHOUT denouncing the drug war periodically–but no, capital-L Liberals don't exactly cover themselves in glory on this file.

  6. This has absolutely nothing to do with the content of the article but man, "tergiversations" has to be the word of the year. I admit I had to look it up.

    • I like that when you Google it, it's mostly definitions

    • I had to look up "tergiversations" too, and the odds are even that I've never seen this word before and will never see it again – but hey, "ordure" happens!

  7. Unfortunately, this is an area of public policy on which the current government does NOT have a problem with a law that makes criminals of ordinary law-abiding Canadians.

    • Not really true. The current Government is only concerned about laws that make criminals of ordinary Canadians, yet have never sent an actual Canadian to jail ever. The laws that do send average Canadians to jail are fine because they wanted to build new jails anyways.

      • Thanks for explaining that. Can we now expect new laws providing jail terms for failing to report crimes, in order to fill the jails being built because of unreported crimes?

        • Who said anything about new? Concealment of a serious crime of which you have knowledge is already a criminal code offence, is it not?

          • Ah, but the new law would assign quotas for crimes to be reported. If a community failed to meet its quota for reported crimes, someone from that community (presumably a non-CPC supporter) would be assigned jail time.

          • Concealment of a serious crime of which you have knowledge is already a criminal code offense, is it not?

            Is that still true if you're the victim???

            I mean, yes, there are things like "accessory after the fact" but when the Minister spoke of building more jails to incarcerate the perpetrators of unreported crimes, I'm pretty sure the failure to report that was meant was the failure on the part of the VICTIM to report said crime (often, it should be said, because the crime in question was so minor, that the victim simply didn't want to waste the time of the police).

            Anyway, somewhat to the side of the actual point, but still, I thought it was worth pointing out that, as far as I know, failing to report a crime of which you are the victim is not in itself a crime.

  8. Sheesh…
    I'm glad I'm not one of Colby's kids who pooped in his diaper by accident one day.
    I'd need a degree to understand how bad I was when he reminds me of it when I get older.

  9. Legalize pot, dammit!

    • Yes!!

      • Yes again!

        • I have a plant in the backyard a week away from harvest. My wife with MS says legalize it. I say, where can I get good gardening gloves? This stuff stinks.

  10. Thank you for writing about "Janey Canuck", I've read the Black Candle and it was certainly not included in any Canadian history I learned in school.

    Canadians need to know about Bill S-10 (formerly Bill C-15) which includes Mandatory Minimum Sentencing, removing judicial discretion for Cannabis offences. The Conservatives will send you to jail for a minimum 1 year for making Pot Brownies. (Seriously.). http://maryjanecannabian.blogspot.com/2009/11/cal

    • I make cookies for MS patients, the ones who've never even smoked. I guess I'm an unreported criminal.

      • I took my cancer-stricken mother a thin joint; she had pain in her abdomen, and could not sleep or eat well. She took three puffs of a joint. Within five minutes, she told me her pain was gone and she felt better.

        I was thrilled on one hand, and totally ticked on the other that we keep this away from people. It's a leaf people. It's medicine — good for what ails you.

        MostlyCivil: highly recommend a vapourizer over smoking.

        • Thanks. We tried that. It was better than trying to smoke, but it was still a bit harsh for her throat.
          She prefers the cookies…

          • Mmm, maybe a brewed tea would be nice, with a little green tea thrown in for extra goodness.

          • Is there a bonus as far as potency goes, or is it just an easier delivery method?

      • "It is not only vain, but wicked, in a legislator to frame laws in opposition to the laws of nature, and to arm them with the terrors of death. This is truly creating crimes in order to punish them."

        -—Thomas Jefferson, Note On Crimes Bill, i, 159. Ford Ed., ii, 218. (1779.)

        Funny how common sense that was known over two centuries ago is such a terribly difficult thing for modern "advanced people" to grasp.

        Any time that a benefit to hunamity is made illegal, it tells you EXPLICITY what the government has perverted itself into. They no longer represent the people in any way, shape or form, and need to be abolished, or at the very least, replaced with those who WILL BE OF BENEFIT TO THE PEOPLE WHO PAY THEIR SALARIES.

        SO often I hear the ignorant refrain that "they're the government…we can't do anything to change it…" and then the same crying morons vote the same people in the next year, and complain about all the same things just as loud.

        Canadian politics has devolved into the same thing as in the USA. Wilfully ignorant people being led by deliberately destructive and decepttive criminals out to pillage the public purse.

  11. Correction : The line should read “There is a new drug in the schedule” are the only words Minister of Health Henri-Séverin Béland uttered; . . .

    • While I favour moving away from the prohibition/criminalizing mode that we are stuck in today, what is your assessment about the consequences (wrt the US) of Canada heading down that road ahead of the US?

      I'm sure that there would be a LOT of 'bark' from US pols, but how much bite? Travel restrictions maybe? That could be somewhat problematic, but might also just end up shifting business meetings somewhat away from face to face and towards videoconferencing etc. But would the US actually boycott Canadian oil and so on? I doubt it.

      • No, the U.S would have to pull it's head out it's ass as well. We can't kill trade at the border.

        Mexico did recently decriminalize personal amounts of hard drugs, and I don't remember too much barking in the U.S. They are of course a much different situation then us.

        As more studies come in over the years (like the one in Portugal) we will inevitably move in that direction. It's more of a question of how long it's going to take, to seep into the populace at large, and thru them to our politicians.

        It probably won't happen in my lifetime, but I'd settle for not moving any further in the wrong direction.

        • Yeah, baby steps is probably how it will go….I too, will be dead before we get to my preferred endpoint.

          Btw, I did read the Tom Flanagan link that you posted up a few comments, although not until a while after I replied to this other comment from yourself…..

          But I still wonder, just a little bit, how far could we push ahead…and what would it cost us. Wouldn't it be worth it to assert some sovereignty, even if it reduced our standard of living by 3%? Doesn't principle count for anything? Isn't support of a principle kind of meaningless unless it actually involves a sacrifice of some sort? Just throwing it out there……..

          • On Nov. 2 Prop-19 goes to a vote in California. I'm not counting chickens just yet, but when it comes to legalizing cannabis, the U.S border may soon be a moot point.

            Would I be willing to assert our sovereignty and decriminalize personal amounts of hard drugs, if I were a majority PM?

            Let's just say that while I wouldn't exactly be asking the POTUS of the day for permission, it would be something I'd have to discuss with him/her first. If s/he would agree to not overly restrict the border, I'd move forward. If not, I wouldn't. Canada can't solve this without the U.S anyway, and an open border with them is too important to risk.

          • You may be interested in this polling analysis of the issue if you haven't already seen it:

            I don't think he's posted an updated article on this yet though.

  12. The biggest problem is that the police do not want to see the loss of customers(criminals) as if loosing business. They are employed to chase criminals therefore the more crime the more work. The police should have no comment on any legalization of marijuana. They play a very big part in this.

  13. Keep an eye on California leading up to November voting on legalization.

  14. Much the same ignorance can be said about those that support the gun registry. They are mostly unfamiliar, unrelenting extremists who base their narrow minded views on lies and deceit put forth by politicians, the media and the chiefs of police. Most are urbanites who have never had their nails dirty, eat at the local deli, enjoy a hydro sucking downtown lifestyle and produce more garbage per person than most homes in rural Canada. Yet they are quick to point the finger.

    • Way to stay on point.

  15. To say that marijuana 'accidentally' ended-up becoming grouped with harder drugs in a fit of 'hysteria', during an age when the effects of drugs weren't understood – and, therefore, by deduction, isn't dangerous, is tantamount to saying that you must be able to sequence the DNA of an animal attacking you before you know that it is a dangerous creature!!!! You might not even know the name of the animal, but you know that it intends to do you damage! Pure instinct can tell you a lot – and your gut is probably right. The path to adding marijuana to the registry may have been flawed, but the outcome was correct. I've seen the effects of long-term marijuana use in people that I've loved. Long-live the laws that keep marijuana illegal for any use other than as prescribed by a doctor! I know that view isn't popular with Colby, and other pot-users like him, but you know what? I don't care! That is why grown-ups make the rules – because sometimes parents (and states) have to make unpopular decisions in the best interests of all! Oh, and btw – I think Marc Emery got exactly what he deserved…. Just sayin'!!!!!

    • TSD, you are entitled to your opinion, but there are a significant number of parents and grandparents who disagree with you: the ones smokin' and tokin' and the others who have seen their children or grandchildren ruined by the criminalization of this drug. If you want to decrease use, legalize it and put it in the realm of public health, not the criminal courts. All this does is expose our kids to the underworld and keep them from informed scientific advice.

      • All Marc Emery was guilty of was stupidity. It was dumb, dumb, dumb, for him to openly sell that stuff to American residents, when anyone with any common sense knows the attitude that US law enforcement has towards importation of any such products. Of course the US authorities were going to go after him.

        But that has nothing to do with whether marijuana ought to be legalized — and it should. These are separate, though related, issues.

    • "I've seen the effects of long-term marijuana use in people that I've loved."

      I think you meant to say they told you to go pound salt because of your delusions, and you decided to blame pot. I've met many people like you in my time.

    • TSD:
      cannabis didn't "accidentally" end up being grouped with harder drugs, etc. It was neither correctly added to the schedule (which makes me wonder if there is not some ruling disqualifying legislature made under such conditions) not does it explain how a reference to a "new drug in the schedule" even translated into "cannabis indica (hasheesh)" and then added at a different time (wouldn't that be construed as tampering with a government document as well as collusion.) Of course where cannabis is concerned all kinds of legislated indiscretion is not only permissible but encouraged. And by your way of thinking that's ok.

      To conflate what I was saying into some mindless analog dealing with the reactionary is typically the kind of stuff Reefer Madness entails. You fail to grasp that the climate of illegality not only augments organized crime, it contributes to that which creates an environment in which those who may need intervention fail to get it because of the ramifications of the illicit status itself. And why not, you're too busy demonizing cannabis to even know better.

      • not does it explain how a reference to a "new drug in the schedule"

        • CORRECTION: NOR does it explain . . .

  16. Frightening, isn't it: our current drug policies were founded by the sorts of people who think that Reefer Madness is a factual documentary.

  17. You had me at "tergiversations".

  18. Those who believe pot is dangerous are demonstrating such abominable stupidity – it's this woeful level of ignorance that ought to be illegal!
    It's really so easy:
    Legalise pot…set a sensible age for its use (such as we do for alcohol)…and tax it. It's that simple. Doing so, we create a new revenue stream, take the business away from, and profit out of, organised crime's hands probably saving ploice officer's lives and the waste of police resources. AND, once and for all, please stop making criminals out of ordinary people who are certainly NOT criminals!

    • wow! Somebody with enough brains to see the obvious and willing to say it! You should run for office, you would have my vote. Find a way to get someone in the media to get that message out there. Free up cops for real crimes and make money at the same time. What a concept!

  19. I also feel — without any serious evidence — that marijuana can be dangerous, and am not much interested in hanging out with those who would use it. However, like the alcohol and bad food that I indulge in, it's their choice. Our vices may cost the health care system one day, but much less than the present regime taxes us.

    • Careful, you wouldn’t want to hang around with someone who imbibed such a dangerous substance. You never know what they might be up to.

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