Neglected and Rejected: A Case Study of the Impact of Social Research on Canadian Drug Policy

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* The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Addiction Research Foundation. An earlier version of this paper was presented to the 10th International Conference on Drug Policy Reform, Washington, DC, Nov. 6-9, 1996.

Abstract: This article examines a specific policy topic, the formation of the new Canadian drug law. After four years, two governments, and three Parliamentry committees, the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act was proclaimed in May 1997. Despite a rich legacy of empirical research pointing drug policy in a new direction, away from aggressive criminalization, the new law reaffirms both the seriously deviant status of illicit drug users and the primacy of the criminal justice model over public health and social justice alternatives. I review the research evidence and analytic contributions provided to these deliberations by Canadian scholars from sociology and related disciplines, often presented directly to the policy makers, and consider explanations for the ultimate rejection of this expertise.

Resume: Dans cet article, on etudie le developpement de la nouvelle loi canadienne sur la drogue. Il a fallu quatre annees, deux gouvernements, et trois commissions pour enfin declarer le projet de Loi C-7 en mai, 1997. Cette loi affirme l'importance du crime ayant rapport aux stupefiants et aussi du chatiment en punition de ce genre de criminalite. A certains egards, la loi ne tient pas compte des recherches empiriques soulignant la valeur d'autres facons d'aborder le probleme, c'est a dire, des facons qui evitent le chatiment en faveur de la sante publique et la justice sociale. L'auteur reexamine les recherches sur cette question, y inclus des arguments presentes directement aux commissions. Elle considere certaines raisons pour lesquelles on a finalement rejete la competence des sociologues et autres specialistes en determinant la nouvelle loi.


A key difference between academics and politicians was illuminated for me by the Foreword of a special issue of a drug journal presenting "A Canadian Perspective" (Mitchell, 1991). A "Forward" (sic) appeared by the Honourable Perrin Beatty, then Minister of National Health and Welfare. What may have seemed like a missed typo actually epitomized the great gulf between the academic and political forums. Academics are concerned with words, and thus with "words that go before," but policy makers are interested with "what goes onward," with progress, with action steps, or at least the appearance thereof. As this paper will demonstrate, it takes more then bringing the respective practitioners together in print, or in one committee room, to bridge this gap.

This paper will focus on the role of sociology and its allied social research disciplines in Canada's 25 year drug policy debate. In the tradition of Alfred Lindesmith (1965), sociologists have been major players in the volatile interdisciplinary context that has attempted to bring about significant drug policy reform since the first upsurge of youthful illicit drug use in the 1960's. Research, writing, and socio-historical analysis have been extensive from the Le Dain Commission (1969-1973) onwards. Political engagement in royal commissions and parliamentary hearings has not been neglected. Yet the result has been, as proclaimed in May 1997, a new Canadian drug law that has been virtually untouched by this professional activity and scholarly output. The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act [CDSA] is a throwback to the 1920's, a revamped Narcotic Control Act, based on myths and preconceptions about illicit drugs and their evil, addictive effects on users, reinforcing the traditional policy of criminalization.

The norms of society can be viewed as a reflection of the basic expectations society has of its members, and the criminal law can be seen as the moral core (Scheerer, 1978). When the actual legitimacy of the norm itself is challenged, then both moral and political authority of the dominant classes and the agents of social control are threatened. …