A York historian traces roots of the marijuana debate

Historian Marcel Martel’s second book has already triggered a trip down memory lane for one reviewer and will likely trigger many more. Though it’s a scholarly exercise, its subject — the debate over legalizing marijuana in the 1960s — is bound to attract an audience well beyond the halls of academe. The debate still rages.

Titled Not This Time: Canadians, Public Policy, and the Marijuana Question, 1961-1975, the 300-page history was published this spring by the University of Toronto Press.

In the 1960s, interest groups – including university student associations, certain physicians, and others – began demanding changes to the Narcotics Control Act to decriminalize or legalize the possession of marijuana, considered non-addictive and less harmful than other illegal drugs.

In Not This Time, Martel explores recreational use of marijuana in the 1960s and its emergence as a topic of social debate. He demonstrates how the media, interest groups, state institutions, bureaucrats and politicians influenced the development and implementation of public policy on drugs. Martel illustrates how two loose coalitions both made up of interest groups, addiction research organizations and bureaucrats – one supporting the existing drug legislation, and the other favouring liberalization of the Narcotics Control Act – dominated the debate over the legalization of marijuana. He shows how those favouring liberalized drug laws had difficulty presenting a unified front and problems justifying their cause while the health benefits of marijuana use were still in question. Exploring both sides of the debate, Martel presents the history of a question that continues to reverberate in the minds of Canadians.

Philip Slayton mentions Martel’s book in his essay on the endless debate in Canada to decriminalize marijuana published in the July/August 2006 issue of Literary Review of Canada and excerpted in the National Post July 27.

Martel (right), who holds the Avie Bennett Historica Chair in Canadian History at York, began work on the book in 2001 when he received a three-year grant to study drugs and public policy in Canada in the 1960s from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Not This Time is Martel’s second book. In 1997, a revised version of his dissertation on the relationship between francophone minority groups and Quebec society was published as a book, Le Deuil d’un pays imaginé. Rêves, luttes et déroute du Canada français. Les relations entre le Québec et les francophones hors Québec, 1867-1975. It won the Michel-Brunet Award for best book published by a young historian in Quebec, presented by the Institut d’histoire de l’Amérique française.

Martel is currently researching language policies in Canada since 1960.