Marijuana and Maclean’s “secret shame”

In a column for Maclean’s, Colby Cosh chronicles the rise of — and the magazine’s role in — marijuana prohibition in the U.S. and Canada.

In the wake of Canadian Marc Emery’s extradition to the U.S., where he faces a five-year prison sentence for importing marijuana seeds into the country by mail, John McKay (the former U.S. attorney turned law professor who, along with our own federal government, had Emery jailed) wrote an op-ed for the Seattle Times. In it, Cosh writes, McKay describes the U.S. marijuana law “as a parade of blind idiocies that enriches criminals and gets cops killed unnecessarily.”

The Times op-ed inspired Cosh to read Emily Murphy’s infamous The Black Candle, published in 1922. Cosh says the influential book was the first to define drugs as a social problem in Canada, it also “introduced the public to their varieties and effects, and led directly to the addition of marijuana to the Restricted List in 1923.”

Cosh writes:

“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 [Murphy’s] 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.”

He writes that Murphy was not typical of her time: rather she was an “unrelenting extremist” who continually expressed “fear of Ango-Celtic
‘degeneration'” and defended “the superiority of the Northmen.” The prohibitive laws that stemmed from this book should be considered timely to today’s law makers, Cosh writes, especially considering that “we have to live with those laws long after the terrors are dispersed and forgotten.”

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