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  The Black Candle

    Judge Emily Murphy

        A review by Nate Hendley

"When coming from under the influence of (marijuana), the victims present the most horrible condition imaginable. They are dispossessed of their natural and normal willpower, and their mentality is that of idiots. If this drug is indulged to any great extent, it ends in the untimely death of its addict."

    Or so believes Judge Emily Murphy who wrote the forementioned passage for her book, The Black Candle. Published in 1922, Murphy's amazingly inaccurate account of drug addiction has the power to amuse even today's most staunch prohibitionists through its overblown rhetoric, biased sources and totally unqualified claims. In fact, the book reads almost like a satire of a modern-day anti-drug tract. Murphy's opus could be considered highly entertaining reading, except for the fact that The Black Candle was taken deadly seriously in its day and led directly to criminalization of marijuana in Canada back in the '20s.
    Emily Murphy was a Police Magistrate and Judge of the Juvenile Court in Edmonton, Alberta when she decided to write the Black Candle. Hopefully, she knew more about law than drugs because her descriptions of substance abuse probably would have embarassed the producers of Reefer Madness. She attributes symptoms more akin to amphetamine use to pot smoking, thinks snorting cocaine makes people invulnerable to pain, and feels the chief negative side-effect of opium addiction is promiscuity.
    Perhaps sensing that her own first-hand knowledge of drug use was a little weak, Judge Murphy thoughtfully provided commentary from qualified medical physicians. A certain "Dr. Warnock" writing in the Journal of Mental Sciences for January, 1903, is quoted by Murphy as saying smoking hashish leads to "a mild, short attack of excitement to a prolonged attack of furious mania, ending in exhaustion or even death."
    Besides the incredibly inaccurate medical descriptions of drug use, The Black Candle also shows its age by revealing a "drug abuse problem" so minute it is beffaling that Murphy thought enough to write about it. In 1921, Murphy notes, "fifty-four persons were convicted for using or peddling (marijuana—or "Indian hemp" as she calls it) in Los Angeles."
    That said, the book also reveals a raw sense of racism that might not have been out of place in the 1920's but seems viritrolic by today's standards:
"Many Negroes are law-aiding and altogether estiminable, but contrariwise, many are obstinately wicked persons, earning their livelihood as freeranging pedlars (sic) of poisonous drugs."

    Actually, compared to media descriptions of black crack gangs, Murphy's comments about "Negro drug pedlars" doesn't seem quite as dated as her Charlie-Chan like depictions of Oriental opium users.
    Orientals at first get off lightly, and Murphy is quick to point out that "compared with the Hindu" or "Negroes" for that matter, "The Chinese, as a rule, are a friendly people and have a fine sense of humour." A few pages later, Murphy lets her true feelings slip and describes Chinese people as "black-haired beasts in our human jungle."
    Towards the middle of her book, The Black Candle stops reading like an anti-drug tract and begins to sound like a Ku Klux Klan manual for protecting Anglo-Saxon supremacy. Indeed, it becomes apparent that Murphy's chief concern about drug use is not the threat of addiction or death, but the fear that "aliens of colour" will "bring about the degeneration of the white race" through traffick in various drugs.
    Murphy makes completely unsustiantied claims about "hundreds of (white) girls living with Chinamen" and black men who "boast how ultimately they will control the white man." The implication is obvious—drug use will weaken the will of white girls, making them receptive to the rapacious advances of Chinese men while drug use in general is part of a broader conspiracy to allow non-white people to enslave Caucasians.
    Taken from this perspective, The Black Candle can be viewed as one long, racist argument for tighter immigration controls. Murphy's position, certainly, is clear. "Aliens of colour" use drugs and push them on white people. Therefore, the obvious solution is to "insist on (people of colour's) exclusion from this continent." To do otherwise, laments Murphy, "would only be a demonstration of broken-headed ineptitude."
    Broken-headed or not, marijuana was made illegal in Canada in 1923, one year after Murphy's totally misinformative but highly influential book. Racist controls on immigrants were also imposed in the 1920s, a reflection of Murphy—and other prejudiced Canadians'—belief that multilcuturalism somehow spelled moral degeneracy and expanded vice.
    Like a watered down version of Mein Kampf, which was allegedly about Germany's condition after World War One, The Black Candle, allegedly about drug use, is one long racist screed against people Murphy doesn't like.
    To bad so many Canadians back in the '20s read it without cracking a smile and viewed it is a serious piece of medical-political literature, not as racist trash.

    —Nate Hendley is a Toronto freelance writer.
    His work has appeared in several alternative weeklies including Montreal Hour, Ottawa X-Press, Detroit Metro Times and id magazine.
    He has also been published in High Times magazine, Cannabis Canada and The Addiction Research Foundation Journal.

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