Issue #13 December 2021

I think most of you are aware of the legal differences between decriminalization and legalization of a drug. But to ensure we are all on the same page, I’ll offer some simple definitions. Decriminalization means that the possession of the drug is still technically illegal, but instead of receiving a criminal record, people have their drugs confiscated and receive a fine. Legalization is, essentially, the liquor store model. Anyone who can prove they are of legal age and is in a state of apparent sobriety, can enter and make a purchase. At least some of you know the reality is not that simple – that there are variants of both decriminalization and legalization. But these definitions will suffice for this dispatch.

What this dispatch is about is not the legal difference, but the political/economic difference as made apparent within the intersectionality of big business and government – a place where public health and safety and social justice tend to wither away to little more than campaign jingoism.

In the early 1990s, the Liberal Party of Canada’s official position on cannabis was in support of decriminalization. The Party even attempted to introduce legislation. However, despite having maintained the powerful entitlement of a majority government for a decade (1993 through half of 2004), the Party did not assign a sufficient level of priority to the initiative to get the job done. Tens of thousands of mostly young Canadians received a criminal record for this victimless contravention of a law that was buoyed by a harsh and perverse proxy for morality. The Liberal Party of Canada remained a willing enabler of the war on cannabis.

In 2000, the Supreme Court of Canada was persuaded to rule that patients have a right to access their medicine. The Liberal government was now obliged to act and created a provision by which anyone with medical authorization could grow their own cannabis or have a designated person grow it for them. The latter part of that provision created what would become euphemistically known as a grey market that quickly spiralled beyond mandate – selling not only to the medically authorized, but to anyone who was willing to pay. When the Progressive Conservatives took power in 2011, they attempted to contain the chaos by replacing the grow your own provision with a legal, regulated commercial production industry that would sell cannabis directly to patients with a medical authorization.

A young entrepreneur named Chuck Rifici saw an opportunity. Rifici hooked up with a former classmate from Queen’s University, Ian McKay, who became a founding investor in Rifici’s cannabis production company Tweed. In 2011, McKay was also the National Director of the Liberal Party of Canada and invited Rifici to join the party’s Board of Directors as its Chief Financial Officer (a volunteer position). Many of the details of what happened next are obscured within the opaque world of political machinations and back-room intrigue, but here is what has been published.

A communications firm was vetted by representatives of the Liberal Party Board of Directors (including McKay) and hired to create video footage and promote the idea of legalizing cannabis for recreational use among delegates at the Liberal Party’s 2012 Convention. Interestingly, the cannabis legalization component was not included in the written contract, but according to the communication firm’s principal, James Di Fiore, was an understood part of the assignment. As part of the unwritten portion of the assignment, Di Fiore interviewed several former and currently elected Liberal Party brass at the convention, including The Honorable Member of Parliament for Papineau Quebec – Justin Trudeau. Mr. Trudeau showed appropriate deference to the Party’s legacy of (legislatively impotent) support for decriminalization. However, he was less enthusiastic about legalization: “I don’t know that it’s entirely consistent with the kind of society we’re trying to build.” Other senior Liberals (Rae, Dion, Martin) interviewed by Di Fiore were equally cautious. Their wariness was understandable. At that time, the official position of their party, like The New Democrat Party, was in support of decriminalization. The then-ruling Progressive Conservatives were unflinchingly committed to continued criminalization. Only the Green Party was on record supporting legalization.

The elected silverbacks of the Liberal Party were either being coy or had not yet been brought on the inside regarding a very different plan that had emerged at the Party’s Board of Directors. The plan, as executed by Di Fiore’s group, was impressively successful – raising delegate support for legalization from a pre-convention 30% to a voting 75%. The rest is well-known history. Mr. Trudeau, anointed as Party Leader, formed a majority government in 2015. Now with a more ardent perspective on legalization, Trudeau immediately set a plan to make it so. On October 17 2018, it came to be. In just 8 years, legalization for recreational cannabis use went from a fringe political platform item to Canadian law. The early catalysts and investors in the cannabis industry, such as Rifici (and presumably McKay), enjoyed enormous economic windfalls from the establishment of a recreational market that vastly outsized the therapeutic one.
We cannot prove a causal path from Mr. Rifici’s appointment by McKay to this relatively sudden and unprecedented change in policy for the Liberal Party. Mr. Rifici has publicly denied the connection. Nonetheless, it feels politically naïve to dismiss the events as coincidental. Investigative journalists have uncovered many connections between the cannabis industry and Liberal Party elites (and a few from the Progressive Conservative Party as well). Cannabis activists are particularly offended by law enforcement figures who made their careers, in part, arresting cannabis users, and were now deeply vested in cannabis production companies.

Let’s now visit the 2018 Liberal Party Convention, where a motion to decriminalize the possession of all drugs was passed by delegates. The decriminalization of all drugs is a policy game-changer first adopted in Spain, Portugal, and Czechoslovakia. This bold experiment in Portugal and Czechoslovakia was evaluated and supported by The Johns Hopkins-Lancet Commission on Public Health and International Drug Policy. Johns Hopkins and Lancet obviously bring considerable academic credibility to the table. Subsequent support for the idea emerged in a joint statement from the United Nations and the World Health Organization. At least another 16 countries have followed suit. A federal bill has been introduced to the United States House of Representatives. Voters approved a ballot measure in the US state of Oregon. In Canada, support has been expressed by The Canadian Public Health Association, The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, The Canadian Society of Addiction Medicine, the Canadian Chiefs of Police, and the Health Canada Expert Task Force on Substance Use. Several Canadian municipalities are in various stages of petitioning the Canadian government for exemptions from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. These include Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Victoria, and the southwestern Ontario rural community of Chatham Kent. The decriminalization of all drugs may now be the most prominent drug policy issue in Canada (and perhaps the world).

To date, the response from the Liberal policy machine has been tepid at best. Recently introduced Bill C-22 would repeal mandatory minimum penalties for possession but stops short of full decriminalization. Canada’s now seasoned Prime Minister Trudeau has been uniformly dismissive of full decriminalization. Where is the whirlwind, ardent, public health approach crusade that trumpeted the Liberal Party’s cannabis legalization campaign?

When the government announced the establishment of its Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation in 2016, a response to a journalist’s question was surprisingly candid and stark – a razor edge ray of light escaping the opaque box of Liberal Party intent:

”…decriminalization does not meet any of our objectives.”

There was apparently no allowance for evidence-based policy, social justice, or compassion. This was business.

Much of the content of this dispatch is covered in more detail in a major manuscript I am working on. It should see light sometime in 2022. Until then, I will provide additional glimpses with these dispatches.

During continued uncertain, unsettling times, I wish you the best that life can offer, a rejuvenating holiday season, and a more hopeful new year.

Mike DeVillaer
Hamilton Ontario Canada
December 1 2021. (Revised December 21 2021)