When cannabis was added to the schedule of prohibited substances in 1923, Canadians were inaugurated into a fraud from which we are just now emerging. It was not a fraud in the familiar business sense – Volkswagen, Bre-X Gold, Enron or subprime mortgages – rather in the sense that it was foisted on the Canadian public by people who could have known better but were inspired by a righteous impulse to punish and stigmatize and criminalize and punish some more.
But as we know – and as the examples above demonstrate – all frauds end. They are all exposed as frauds eventually.
Which makes it all the more curious that intelligent people like Rona Ambrose – interim leader of the Conservative Party of Canada – insist on pretending that cannabis prohibition has some foundation in logic, common sense, medicine, public health or something worthy of serious consideration.
Prohibition is not a legacy worth preserving
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Maybe it's a conservative reflex to protect and uphold what exists irrespective of whether what exists is commendable. Conservatives in the history of political thought certainly thought so, particularly those associated with the French Counter-Enlightenment. Joseph de Maistre believed that the legitimacy of government must not be subject to question – and it's a short step from there to endorsing policy that has no grounds in rationality but is simply inherited from people who knew better.
Change, these conservatives contend, introduces instability. Babies are discarded with bathwater and everyone is worse off if turbulence overwhelms order.
Why does perpetuating a fraud seem to be a conservative – in this political theory sense – impulse? One obvious answer is that, the lessons of history notwithstanding, large institutions and the people who run them convince themselves that they can ride it out, cover it up, distract the authorities and emerge unscathed.
Of course, some clearly succeed or we would surely know of more scandals and outrages than we do. Large institutions deploy armies of lawyers to do damage control and to purchase the silence of victims, as the Catholic Church did when it was revealed that priests were grooming young boys for sex.
Ambrose shouldn't defend discredited policies
But would it be too much to, in this case, ask Ms. Ambrose to do a little self-education on the cannabis file rather than simply recite discredited and debunked mythology from the late 19th Century? Do we have to practice that kind of conservatism? How would we be better off by perpetuating that fraud?
Another view holds that whatever becomes encoded in law reflects some unfathomable primal rationality that betokens something fundamentally authentic irrespective of the passing fashions of the moment – that we, the arrogant minority who happen to be walking around, ought not take it upon ourselves to tinker with the majesty of what has been entrusted to us by our ancestors.
This view is articulated – in different language – in American politics through a veneration for the infallible founding fathers. This strain of conservatism is nostalgic for a past that did not exist – but it is no less powerful and persuasive to its believers. Is this the kind of conservatism that Ms. Ambrose endorses?
Liberals make policy based on reasoned analysis
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Liberals – again, in the political theory sense – often default to education, to the power of sovereign reason. They regard learning as the "get out of jail" card – though it is seldom "free" – often requiring long study, deep reflection, the rejection of prejudices and discarding of error.
This is the path I would recommend for Ms. Ambrose: If, having done some reading of the current science, Ms. Ambrose still feels compelled to defend prohibition, at least we can commend her on the effort. She will presumably emerge sounding more persuasive and convincing for the work. And that is worthy of our respect.
Ultimately we want our policy makers – even those we disagree with – to demonstrate some commitment to critical reflection on complex topics, particularly topics shrouded in myth and misinformation like cannabis prohibition. That's not too much to ask.
Knee-jerk opposition not the best face of conservatism
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Another tradition of conservatism – associated with Edmund Burke – defends a more pragmatic and practical view of public policy: equally skeptical of unbridled rationalism but willing to re-think what isn't working. It's hard to imagine this strain of conservatism mindlessly adopting a knee-jerk defense of the fraud of cannabis prohibition after nearly a century of trying – and failing – to make it work.
What we have before us, in Ms. Ambrose's defense of prohibition, is not the best face of conservatism – not a conservatism worthy of a mature liberal democracy. What Ms. Ambrose does not appreciate is that in trying to perpetuate a fraud, she is doing more harm to the institution she represents than if she came clean with us. And with herself.
All frauds end, Ms. Ambrose, including the fraud of cannabis prohibition. The tide is coming in. Get into a boat, move to higher ground or get wet. History is talking to you.
Craig Jones is the executive director of NORML Canada: The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in Canada. E-mail: [email protected]