Skip to main content

A young marijuana plant thriving in the basement of a grow operation.Darryl James/The Globe and Mail

Why are people so intense about the long-gun registry, a reporter asked me not long ago. There's no real evidence that it has diminished the incidence of violent crime, and Stephen Harper's government has passed orders-in-council to take away coercive enforcement, so why do Canadians care so much about the debate if the practical result is inconsequential?

The answer, I think, is that the debate reveals a fundamental difference between liberal and conservative world views. Liberals tend to be progressives who believe in the malleability of human nature. In their view, human behaviour is shaped by environmental circumstances, which, in turn, can be controlled, or at least affected, by government policy. Conservatives, in contrast, tend to think of human nature as relatively stable, either created by God or resulting from evolution, and therefore not easily subject to environmental manipulation or government control.

These different starting points lead to different conclusions about gun crime. A liberal's reaction is to reduce crime by taking away guns, while a conservative's response is to deter potential offenders by punishing criminal gun users. The two sides talk past each other, choosing evidence to support their entrenched views. With fundamental commitments at stake, the temperature of the debate rises as the talking continues.

While I believe the conservative view on gun crime is closer to the truth than the liberal view, I also think conservatives should be more consistent, and re-examine their views about an issue that is more important than the long-gun registry - prohibition of mind-altering drugs.

Curiously, prohibition of drugs, at least in Canada, began as an initiative of Liberal politicians. Opium was criminalized in 1908, when Mackenzie King was deputy minister of labour, serving Wilfrid Laurier's government. Marijuana was added to the list in 1923, when King was prime minister. The logic was the same as that of gun control - if people misuse something (guns, drugs), change the environment by taking away the object.

Prohibition of drugs was part of the broader progressive agenda of the early 20th century, including prohibition of alcohol, political rights for women, eugenics, nationalization of utilities, and proportional representation. It represented the triumph of the new "positive" state, at a time when conservatives were still enamoured of Victorian gentlemen such as Sherlock Holmes, who carried a pistol when he needed it and injected cocaine when he wanted to.

Over time, conservatives have become enthusiastic champions of drug prohibition, while liberals and other leftists are starting to move on. The critics have done us all a favour by pointing out the enormous damage caused by prohibition: corruption, criminality and even civil war in drug-producing countries such as Colombia and Afghanistan; an increase in property crime, as the high price of illegal drugs leads users to pay for their habit by stealing; the growth of organized crime and outlaw gangs running the illegal drug industry along with associated sidelines such as smuggling and money-laundering. The prohibition of drugs doesn't work any better than the prohibition of alcohol; drugs are now just as widely available as was alcohol before the repeal of that prohibition; and, like the prohibition of alcohol, prohibition of drugs is doomed to repeal in the long run.

Some prominent Canadian conservatives, such as former Fraser Institute president Michael Walker, Conservative MP Scott Reid, legal writer Karen Selick and financial journalist Terence Corcoran, have led the way in decrying drug prohibition, but their position has to become more appreciated within the conservative movement. Conservatives need to see that the war on drugs, like the gun registry, is profoundly incompatible with their basic values. Prohibition leads to hypertrophic growth of the state's security and surveillance apparatus, arbitrary searches and seizure of property, pointless criminalization of innocent activities, and growth of genuine criminality as a spinoff from the trade in forbidden drugs.

Unfortunately, Canada cannot act alone on this front. As long as the United States pursues its war on drugs, our policy cannot drift too far toward legalization lest it disrupt travel and trade across the border. Imagine American border guards searching Canadian travellers as diligently for legalized B.C. bud as they now search for Israeli oranges. But U.S. criminal law is mainly a matter of state jurisdiction, and some states are starting to relax their prohibition of marijuana. Instead of intensifying our own war on drugs, Canada should be prepared to move in that direction, within the limits of practicality.

Tom Flanagan is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager.