The secret shame of Maclean’s

A history of moral panic about marijuana in Canada

A couple of weeks ago I ordered a copy of Emily Murphy’s The Black Candle (1922), the notorious, influential book that first defined drugs as a social problem in Canada, introduced the public to their varieties and effects, and led directly to the addition of marijuana to the Restricted List in 1923. I placed the order after reading the Sept. 3 Seattle Times op-ed by John McKay, the former U.S. attorney who (in connivance with our federal ministry) had Marc Emery extradited and jailed. McKay, forced out of his job because of political controversies and tergiversations you’d need a scorecard to comprehend, is now a professor of law. His editorial was a tub of ordure hurled backwards at his own career: in it, he characterized U.S. marijuana law as a parade of blind idiocies that enriches criminals and gets cops killed unnecessarily.

Having left law enforcement, McKay had the chutzpah to add that prohibition survives partly because “no one in law enforcement is talking about it.” Apparently they like to wait until they have tenure. I’d say his belated gesture of courage deserves something like the reward given to the naval gunner in Victor Hugo’s Quatrevingt-treize who leaves a cannon unsecured below decks and heroically brings it under control. In the book, the commander pins the Cross of St. Louis on the man’s breast—and immediately orders him shot.

One thing that struck me about McKay’s article, though, is how he admits that “our 1930s-era marijuana prohibition was overkill from the beginning”. How much more so was Canada’s? Few states outlawed cannabis as early as Canada did; the pretext was provided by Judge Murphy. It was in a fit of consciousness of original sin that I ordered the book, having written about it years ago. The judge would understand, for we come from the same fanatical Presbyterian stock and dwell upon the same unforgiving spot on the map; and now, as it happens, I have joined the staff of Maclean’s, the organ primarily responsible for promoting moral panic on her behalf back in the day.

The guilt ought to lie heavy upon us, for Murphy’s reflections on “Marijuana—A New Menace” are, as McKay’s remark suggests, nonsense—lurid, racist, sexually pathological, self-contradicting old-lady balderdash that openly pre-empts the whole notion of evidentiary support. “There are plenty of folk,” writes Murphy, “who pretend to themselves that they yield to narcotic enchantment in a desire for research and not for sensual gratification…but, however kindly in judgment, one finds these statements hard to credit, and even if credited, only demonstrates these persons as rascals-manifest.” (Gotta love that hyphen.)

We thus ought to trust other authorities, Murphy suggests: one such is the Chief of Police of Los Angeles, California, who tells her that “Persons using this narcotic smoke the dried leaves of the plant, which has the effect of driving them completely insane. The addict loses all sense of moral responsibility. Addicts to this drug, while under its influence, are immune to pain, and could be severely injured without having any realization of their condition. While in this condition they become raving maniacs and are liable to kill or indulge in any form of violence to other persons, using the most savage methods of cruelty…If this drug is indulged in to any great extent, it ends in the untimely death of its addict.” A medical informant adds that the drug is used to induce “hallucinations which are commonly sexual in character among Eastern races.” Murphy, having double-checked this information in the Encyclopedia Britannica, expresses skepticism but does attest that “It is…a peculiarity of hasheesh that its fantasia almost invariably takes Oriental form.”

In summary—says a magistrate who decided the fates of poor and miserable people in my city within the memory of persons still living—”there are three ways out from the regency of this addiction: 1st—Insanity. 2nd—Death. 3rd—Abandonment.” We must beware of judging Murphy by the standards of our own time, of course. She was almost totally unfamiliar with marijuana, so she formed a view of it using the cognitive tools available to her—a strong education, a wide correspondence, and a practical knowledge of the social effects of drugs in general.

But that view was substantially influenced, if not determined, by Murphy’s white-supremacist race-hygiene ideology. And she was not merely typical of her time in that regard: she was an unrelenting extremist, someone who could hardly write twenty consecutive words without expressing fear of Anglo-Celtic “degeneration” or remarking defensively upon “the superiority of the Northmen”. It may be timely to observe that new laws are normally midwived by terrors such as these, and that, in general, we have to live with those laws long after the terrors are dispersed and forgotten.