Canadian anti-drug laws

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services


This review follows a complaint about a segment December 22, 2011 on CBC Radio British Columbia's Early Edition involving a call for the reform of anti-drug laws in Canada. There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

On December 22, 2011, CBC Radio British Columbia carried an interview segment on its Early Edition program with Dr. Paul Hasselback, the chair of the Health Council of British Columbia, on the council's support for an overhaul of Canadian anti-drug measures.

Hasselback is also a member of a coalition of health, justice and academic professionals known as Stop The Violence BC, which was releasing information and recommendations that day.

In particular the segment focused on what Hasselback asserted was the need for reforms to anti-drug laws. He told the program that the current prohibition of cannabis wasn't working and that the negative impact of prohibition outweighed the negative impact of use.

Hasselback said the situation needed to be judged with evidence, not political values, and that an independent national commission would be preferable to legislation created behind closed doors.

He acknowledged there were downsides to the relaxation of laws involving cannabis, but said alcohol, tobacco and some prescription drugs also had harmful effects and were regulated products. But, he argued, a regulatory environment would help address pricing, education and other related issues and reduce the violence, gang involvement, illegal distribution and property damage impact associated with the status quo.

He said he didn't have a particular solution on how he would like to see cannabis regulated. “I'd like to keep my mind open at this point in time.”

The complainant, Michael Tripper, wrote CBC on December 22 and said the interview did not accurately reflect the coalition's position. He said it had called for legalization, not decriminalization, and a regime of taxation and regulation.

He said the program referred to marijuana rather than cannabis and that host Kathryn Gretsinger indicated Hasselback was “only one” voice in the public debate, thus downplaying the overall coalition position.

Lorna Haeber, the program director for CBC Radio British Columbia, wrote back December 23 and said CBC News checked with Hasselback before the interview on whether it was appropriate to say legalization or decriminalization, and he indicated the latter.

Haeber said that cannabis and marijuana were acceptably interchangeable terms for the purpose of a general-interest interview. And she said Gretsinger stumbled “ever so slightly” in ending the interview by referring to Hasselback as “the medical health officer . . . one of them in B.C.,” with Haeber implying there was no suggestion Hasselback was acting as a lone voice.

Tripper wrote January 9, 2012 that there were several unanswered questions and that the program has a “hatred and distaste for the topic.”

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices call for accurate presentation of issues with “clear and accessible” production techniques in which controversial viewpoints are handled “respectfully.”

It has particular policies on language, saying in part: “Our language should be simple, clear and concrete. Journalistic style is accurate, concise and accessible. Our purpose is to make complex subjects understandable. When specialized or technical vocabulary needs to be used, it is explained and put in a context that makes it easy to understand. The description of facts, however concise, must provide the nuances necessary to ensure that the account is faithful and easy to understand.”


Decriminalization eliminates a criminal penalty but maintains associated laws and regulations for a particular action. Legalization removes a prohibition against something illegal. The terms tend to be used interchangeably in the context of the discussions about shifts in the legal framework for drugs, despite their differences.

The Health Officers Council of British Columbia report in November 2011 recommended a review, evaluation and update of laws related to psychoactive substances to “ensure

that such laws encompass a public health orientation to the regulation of all psychoactive substances.”

The coalition of health, justice and academic experts, Stop The Violence BC, released its report on the day of the Early Edition interview. It also called for an end to prohibition and an introduction of a regulatory framework. The council was joining the coalition in this call.

It remains unclear if legalization or decriminalization is the most appropriate term to reflect the positions of the council and coalition, because they use neither in their reports. They are recommending a national commission to determine some sort of framework that includes regulation, but principally they are calling for a process of legal reform as the next step and not presuming the outcome.

Given they envision regulation as a result, the use of the term decriminalization was not wrong.

For this review, Hasselback indicated he was asked what term to use about 30 seconds before the interview. While he hesitated to use either term, he told CBC News that he supposed decriminalization would not be wrong.

It might have been better to avoid either term, but it was not a violation of policy to suggest this approach would constitute decriminalization.

It was also not a policy violation for the segment to focus on marijuana and not other cannabis, given it is the most widely understood form of cannabis. Indeed, the interview segment could have examined the legal treatment of all psychoactive drugs, given the scope of the council report.

I also reviewed the complaint about the description of the guest and, in listening repeatedly to the segment's conclusion, sided with CBC News. In that matter also, there was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Kirk LaPointe
CBC Ombudsman