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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
Volume 2 - Policies and Practices In Canada

Chapter 18 - Observations on practices 

Incongruities of approach 

Some myths are long-lived. Although not supported by the empirical research we have examined, images of cannabis leading to use of hard drugs, damaging brain functions permanently, or causing academic failure, to name but these few, continue to abound.

We are well aware that there is no international consensus among researchers on these issues. But we are equally aware that it is difficult to alter preconceptions. Last year, at an international scientific conference in Europe, whose results we have already cited, some participants concluded that, although a consensus was emerging in the research community, its existence was irrelevant because all the countries represented were signatories of international conventions on drugs. One always finds ways to circumvent reality when it does not fit ideology.

Let there not be finger-pointing. Those who most frequently hold these beliefs about cannabis are also those who are confronted daily with the negative effects of drug abuse: crime and violence for the police officer on the beat; human misery for those in therapeutic practice. Their view of drugs, of cannabis in particular, is naturally coloured by their experience, which puts them in situations of contact with abuse, distress, violence and death. But those users who require treatment are no more representative of the cannabis user population than are the street kids and petty offenders the police see constantly.

Clearly, what is required is a bridge, an intermediary between the worlds of research and the front lines, between decision-makers and field workers and between them all and civil society. While the research is not perfect, while we deplore the lack of a truly national system of information, the information is, nevertheless, there in quantity, as we have had occasion to observe in the course of our proceedings. But it needs wide circulation, and above all it needs to be the subject of public debate and discussion. The CCSA could disseminate this information and promote discussion, were it given the resources - a role it has never had the means to play.

The researchers themselves must bear some of the responsibility for the situation. They tend not to care whether their work reaches those in positions of power or whether it is distributed in political forums or in the field. Some are still shackled to the idea of “academic freedom,” thinking that their involvement in the worlds of decision-making and practice will contaminate the objectivity of their research. It is thus not surprising that knowledge of the players on the ground is limited to what their experience provides; nor are the institutions to which they belong necessarily equipped to systematize and contextualize such knowledge either.

We have observed a serious gulf between the positions taken by the research community and those taken by front-line workers, including the police and the therapeutic community. It would be too easy to reduce the position of the practitioners to “corporate” interests. There is a need for basic discussion and exchange, which is not happening among the various players; and too often the experience-based knowledge derived from practice has no legitimacy in the eyes of the scientific community, though this is the knowledge that attracts the attention of the decision-makers, the media and the general public.

In practice, glaring contradictions arise between the discourse and the approach of the two sides. While young people hear about the potential therapeutic value of cannabis and about decriminalization, they see police operations in the schools and listen to classroom lectures on its dangers. While the primary targets of police action are supposed to be the traffickers, young people read that thousands of people are arrested every year for simple possession of marijuana. While images of junkies destroyed by heroin are flashed in the media, young people also hear that it is available by prescription. And drug users continued to be picked up by the police as they leave needle-exchange clinics. Caught between these contradictory words and actions, how should they know what to think?

These incongruities are exacerbated by the imbalance in power and resources. Non-profit groups that provide cannabis for therapeutic purposes talked about this at length: their credibility with law-enforcement agencies is often hard earned, built over time, with a few individual members of the police. They are well aware that their status is precarious and that they might have to “bail out” at any moment. Public health agencies that attempt to foster discussion and introduce harm-reduction practices are equally aware that they are operating at the outer limits of the law and that their actions are not universally supported. Researchers who wish to study the therapeutic applications of cannabis are restricted by the present system of prohibition.

In the case of alcohol, a decision-making structure exists to give a relatively equal voice to the various players involved. It includes  the agencies that regulate production, distribution and sale, the public health organizations that work to reduce at-risk behaviours and clarify the determinants of abuse, the justice system that intervenes to prevent smuggling and arrest those irresponsible people who drive while impaired. The co-operation and dialogue among these players is close and constant, and there are even formal channels for co-operation and dialogue with the distilling and brewing industries. The result, by and large, is uniform practices and views, although this is not to imply that all problems have been solved. But in the field of illegal drugs, there is nothing like this. Dialogue where certain words cannot be spoken or ideas expressed, where certain decisions can never be made and resources are so unequally shared among the players, is merely empty an exercise meant to give the illusion that something is being achieved.




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