The pot debate and Canadian society

The inauguration of the Avie Bennett Historica Chair in Canadian History, held Oct. 27, brought together York University administrators, faculty, staff and students for a landmark lecture and reception. Jen Sipos, manager of communications & public relations for the Faculty of Arts, sent YFile this report.

York Professor Marcel Martel, holder of the University’s first Avie Bennett Historica Chair in Canadian History, delivered a public lecture titled, “The Marijuana Debate: Drug Use and Canadian Society”, on Oct. 27. 

Peter Oliver, a professor in the History Department at York and a colleague of Martel’s, opened the evening by noting that, “the notion of a Chair goes very deep into the academic tradition of the Western world. It signifies many things: a sense of permanence and solidity, a sense of commitment to the future. It is a very serious responsibility to hold a Chair in any discipline, especially in Canadian history. As a department and a University, we are delighted with this happy occasion and this wonderful event.”

Right: From left, York President & Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden; Avie Bennett, chancellor emeritus of York University; and Paul Marcus, president & CEO, York University Foundation

The lecture highlighted, in part, the government’s attempts to intervene in Canadian drug use in the 1960s, which Martel posed as a function of the morality politics of the day. Martel referred to inefficiencies of regulatory policies of other similar attempts such as the prohibition of alcohol and, in the final analysis, indicated that, “morality politics tend to highlight all the shortcomings of the state as an agent of moral regulation.”

“In the 1960s, opposing groups pressed the state to either decriminalize marijuana or to increase penalties in order to discourage marijuana use. For many individuals and interest groups, the state was perceived as part of the solution,” said Martel. “For others, it was perceived as part of the problem, since marijuana was defined as a cultural practice that did not interfere with the rights of others.”

Martel argued that two interest groups, the police forces and the medical community, came to dominate the debate over how the state should handle the drug issue. “Should the law remain the best means by which to reduce drug supply and deter individuals from recreational drug use?” asked Martel. “Or should health and educational programs and strategies be used to reduce drug demand by treating those who had developed an addiction and by educating others about their drug use?

“Law enforcement agencies wanted to convince the federal government to maintain the legal approach, while the medical profession wanted to implement a health and education approach. However, physicians undermined their own lobby effort. They were divided and capitalizing on these divisions, police forces won the battle over the orientation and goals of public drug policy,” said Martel.

In his remarks prior to Martel’s lecture, York’s Chancellor Emeritus Avie Bennett, after whom the Historica Chair in Canadian History is named, applauded the emphasis the University has traditionally placed on the importance of a liberal arts education. He signalled that Martel, the first appointee of the Avie Bennett Historica Chair, was “the logical person.” To illustrate the value of Martel’s work further, Bennett quoted from a convocation speech he gave close to 100 times: “York has created an environment in which there is freedom to explore and to experience the widest range of education, including those lessons we learn outside the classroom. Education means more than just knowledge amassed or examinations passed. The educated person is not a narrow specialist, but one who has read and thought widely, who has contemplated mysteries beyond his or her own scope.”

Left: From left, Lorna R. Marsden, Marcel Martel, Avie Bennett and Thomas S. Axworthy

Thomas S. Axworthy, executive director of the Historica Foundation of Canada, highlighted the “enormously pleasant and fruitful experience” the foundation had in working with Martel and the many graduate students and high-school students in order to develop the modules of Canadian history.

York President and Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden expressed the gratitude of York University and of many of those in attendance: “This gift embeds into the culture and the future of this University the names of Avie Bennett and Historica and in doing so, it adds immeasurably to the strength and depth of this University.”  

Following the lecture, senior administrators, faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the University, along with several graduate students, gathered for a reception to celebrate the inaugural lecture. Many of the graduate students had a great deal of praise for Martel, someone they consider to be not only a professor, but a friend. James Muir, a PhD candidate in the Department of History, studying civil law in the 18th century, said, “He is an academic historian doing academic work, but he’s doing the sort of thing that will reach out beyond the University. It’s a great example of what a Chair like Historica can bring to a university.”

Leanne Dustan, another PhD candidate in the Department of History, studying modern Canadian history: women and the state, shares Martel’s interest in the history of public policy and said, “He is very supportive of graduate students. His scholarship, highlighted by this Chair, offers great encouragement to young Canadian history scholars everywhere.”

For more information on the Avie Bennett Historica Chair in Canadian History, contact the Department of History at ext. 55123.