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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
Volume I - General Orientation

Chapter 2 - Our Work

Expert Witnesses

Aware of the research program's limits, and particularly of the need to question some of the researchers whose work was cited in the studies conducted and to compare their analyses with those of other researchers and with the positions of other expert organizations (police forces, for example), we conducted a series of hearings of expert witnesses in Ottawa and certain other cities across the country.[1][6]

The hearings began on October 16, 2000 during the 36th Parliament and resumed on April 30, 2001, during the 37th. They ended on June 10 of this year with presentations from the principal departments responsible for illegal drug policy in Canada. As far as possible, the Committee maintained a rate of one hearing every two weeks.

In every case, the Committee asked the witnesses to prepare a written brief responding to specific questions. The Committee did not expect the experts to give their opinion or tell it what to think. The expert witness hearings were part of an effort to increase members' knowledge. Knowing that our ability to conduct studies was limited and acknowledging that research data were incomplete, if not contradictory, we wanted to take full advantage of this exceptional opportunity to clarify and better disseminate certain findings.

Who were these experts? How did the Committee select them? These are important questions to the extent that a certain number of stakeholders questioned the Committee's credibility as a result of certain choices it made. First, we wanted to cover each of the major fields of investigation. Consequently, we heard sociologists and lawyers, psychologists and physicians, police officers and criminologists. Second, we wanted to hear as many Canadian experts as possible from those various research areas. Third, for the most part, we selected experts known for their publications in the field. The researchers included Professors Harold Kallant and Marie‑Andrée Bertrand, who were closely involved in the work of the Le Dain Commission 30 years ago and researchers closely associated with such major institutes as the Ontario Centre on Mental Health and Addiction (the former Addiction Research Foundation) and the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. Lastly, we were interested in inviting experts who, in certain cases, could speak on behalf of major institutions such as the Canadian Medical Association, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. It will be seen from a close look at the list of experts heard and the subjects of their presentations that they coincided with all our areas of concern.

When the hearings focused on the situation in other countries, we sought to strike a balance between those persons who could describe public policy and researchers whose work was recognized in their country and internationally. As the number and length of our hearings were limited, we had to make choices. At most we could hear four persons per hearing. As a general rule, we tried to choose a senior government official and three researchers.

One could also question our choice of countries heard: France, the Netherlands and Switzerland. We had initially intended to hear representatives from England, particularly because that country's public drug policies have been examined in many high-quality studies. Unfortunately, changes under way in there prevented us from holding those hearings. Similarly, we did not have enough time to hear from Sweden or Australia. However, we had the Parliamentary Research Branch prepare syntheses on each of those countries.

The case of the United States deserves particular attention. Chapter 20 describes American drug policy. However, at our hearings on the United States, which is much more complex and less monolithic than is often thought, we were unable to hear from those responsible within the U.S. government, although not for lack of trying. The Director of the prestigious National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) had tendered his resignation a week before the scheduled date of the hearings, after accepting our invitation. And the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington declined our invitation. In short, we are dissatisfied at having been unable to hear the senior officials responsible for drug policy in the United States. Nevertheless, on June 10 2002, we held a private meeting with Dr. Hanson, the new Director of NIDA, and on June 11 we had an in camera meeting with Mr. Walters, the Director of ONDCP and some of his key advisors in Ottawa.

In all, the Committee held more than 40 days of public hearings in Ottawa and other Canadian cities, hearing more than 100 persons from all backgrounds.

One further note. It can be said that we did not handle the testimony of researchers and those of practising experts in the same way. That is true in part. To the extent that researchers presented data lending itself to critical review, containing verifiable data, which does not mean proof, on specific subjects, making it gradually possible to answer our empirical questions, we attached a certain degree of importance to them, which will be reflected in the passages cited throughout this report. The information from practitioners is not in itself any less significant or important in our view. However, the practitioners more often tended to express opinions than to present study data. They also did not have the same concern to give precise answers to the questions put to them. Those opinions are important, as are those of the Canadians whom we heard and who wrote to us, but they are nevertheless opinions, not cold hard data.

 The challenge of synthesis

Faced with this massive amount of information, the greatest challenge was to synthesize it. The scientific literature on all of the topics addressed, particularly those concerning the effects of cannabis and users and types of use, is abundant. Experts reported to us on their research and that of other researchers. The reports prepared at our request are full of information, and our research team stayed on the look‑out for recent publications and attended various international scientific conferences. In short, the task was to make sense of all this data, which, in addition, contained contradictory information at times.

At the same time, the data on certain subjects are still fragmentary. This is the case of data on trends in the use of cannabis and other drugs in Canada (Chapter 6), on the specific nature of therapeutic applications of cannabis, evidence of which often does not go beyond the anecdotal (Chapter 9) and simply on police practices (Chapter 14) or the decisions of Canadian courts (Chapter 15).

Synthesizing this information thus also meant making choices. While fully respecting the diverse range of perspectives, we nevertheless had to draw conclusions, accepting that some of the conclusions might be preliminary and that they might be contradicted by subsequent research. It is in the very nature of science that it is constantly in motion, and we accept that state of affairs. As a result, we are aware that we have left ourselves open to criticism. So much the better, we might add, first, because criticism will stimulate public debate, second, because it will undoubtedly pique the curiosity of researchers, who will verify some of our findings empirically, thus improving the state of our present knowledge, and, third, because our choices will be made plain in light of the guiding principles that are outlined in the next chapter.





[1][6]  A complete list of the witnesses heard as well as subjects, places and dates is provided in Appendix 2. All the evidence and certain supplementary documents provided by witnesses are available on line at the Committee's Web Site.

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