Drug policy in Canada: from alcohol to opioids

Beginning with the history of alcohol and tobacco regulation, this conversation explores some big questions about how and why psychoactive substances are used and controlled in Canadian society.

The Panel

Tara Bruno is an Associate Professor in Sociology at King’s University College. Her research interests include addictions, mental health, criminology, homelessness, youth and families, and research methods. Tara’s new book, The Drug Paradox: An Introduction to the Sociology of Psychoactive Substances in Canada, will be released in the Summer of 2018.

Robert Solomon is on the Faculty of Law at Western University, where he holds the rank of Distinguished University Professor. He has been engaged in research on alcohol and drug policy, and tort, criminal and health law for over 45 years and has published widely in these areas. He has served as the National Director of Legal Policy for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD Canada) for 20 years and has frequently appeared as an expert before various Parliamentary Committees.

#MeToo and the Presumption of Innocence: how can we believe victims and protect the legal rights of accused at the same time?

This conversation was born from a question: does assuming that the accused is innocent mean assuming that accusers are liars? And, in contrast, does believing a victim’s story without an investigation mean denying the accused of their presumed innocence? Does ‘innocent until proven guilty’ inherently favour the protection and rights of one gender above the other?

In this podcast, we explore the apparent gender-based differences in the ways that people experience the legal system. We question who has the power to define a ‘credible victim’ in the eyes of the law and in the broader community. We also wrestle with the fundamental question of how ‘sexual harassment’ and ‘sexual assault’ are defined (and are being redefined?) by society.

Truth be told, I don’t think we were able to definitively answer the question, “How can we believe victims and protect the legal rights of accused at the same time?” But hopefully the ideas and perspectives shared here can contribute to the broader discourse. This is a topic I am sure deserves further analysis, and it is one to which we will doubtlessly return again. As always, if you have perspectives to add to this dialogue, please get in touch or, better yet, share in the comments below. Curious to hear your thoughts.

The Panel

Kelsey Adams (@kelskadams) is a Social Media Coordinator at ANOVA, which provides safe places, shelter, support, counselling, and resources for abused women, their children, and all oppressed individuals.

Lesley Bikos (@lbikos) is a former police officer and PhD candidate in Sociology at Western University. She researches the intersection of gender and workplace culture with a current focus on policing and police reform.

Mark Henshaw (@MarkHenshaw) completed his Master’s thesis on the topic of engaging high school boys on the issue of violence against women.

Leah Marshall is a social worker and the Sexual Violence Prevention Advisor at Fanshawe College.

I Believe Her

Innocent until proven guilty. This is the foundational presumption of our justice system. This is the normative, intentional bias we have structurally embedded in our conception of justice to protect the wrongly accused. It is central to our legal definition of human rights itself.

But presumed innocence has a inherent side effect. It structurally imposes a bias of its own. It presumes the accuser must be lying. For as long as we presume the innocence of the accused, we are predisposed to suspect the integrity and honesty of the plaintiff. In a sense, to presume the innocence of a perpetrator means concurrently assuming the victim bears ‘inverse guilt’ for making a (presumed) falsified accusation.

Applying a gender lens to this inverse guilt is critical. For example, when a woman accuses a man of sexual misconduct, harassment, or assault, she steps forward not only as the victim of an act of violence against her body but as one who must now internalize this inverse guilt. As far as the legal system and public opinion is concerned, speaking up equates to everyone assuming she has fabricated her story — at least until her charge is proven. But how does one prove all sexual misdemeanors “beyond a reasonable doubt?” Who can trust a legal system biased explicitly on the defendant’s innocence to rule in your favor regarding an incident that occurred in private or behind closed doors?

Presumed innocence favours the denial of wrongdoing above the declaration of wrongdoing. And so it should. No one wants to live in legal system that allows a single, flippant accusation to destroy their life and family overnight. Such a system clearly provides no legal protection for anyone at all. But the problem is that the protection we all supposedly enjoy under the presumption of innocence also produces a legal climate and culture of law enforcement systemically incentivized to manifest at least some degree of victim blaming — the disproportionate burden of which is borne by women.

The question, I think, is whether or not we can simultaneously assume the innocence of the accused and the honesty of the accuser? Are we capable of such nuance? It seems to me that until the claimant’s character are assumed as innocent as the defendant’s actions, we will continue to replicate a system that serves men above than women. We need to figure out a way to normalize the paradox of saying “I believe her” while simultaneously protecting all of us from a nightmarish dystopia where all it takes is an accusation to prove your guilt once and for all. I’m not sure how we get there from where we are today, but trusting and believing victims must be a first step to bringing some equilibrium to a very unbalanced arrangement at present.

My Human Rights vs. Your Human Rights

Canada is full of legal examples where the rights to be free from discrimination based on creed, sexual orientation, or gender may be perceived to be at odds with one another in different circumstances. Whose rights ‘win’ when rights are in competition? In Canada’s increasingly diverse society, the question of competing human rights comes up often. Join us as we pick apart some legal cases to see how these conflicts are resolved in the court system.

  • Street preachers pronounce condemnation on passerby pedestrians — free speech versus freedom from harassment? One person’s right to express themselves versus another person’s right to not be verbally assaulted?
  • A Greek nursing home refuses admission to a non-Greek applicant who claims policy is discriminatory. Can you reject someone from an establishment on the basis of their ethnicity?
  • The child of same-sex parents is refused enrollment to a private Christian school. Religious freedom or discrimination? Which right supersedes the other?
  • Currently before the courts, Trinity Western University, a private school seeking accreditation for law degrees, simultaneously requires enrolling students to sign a statement of faith that says marriage must be between a man and a woman.

To help us navigate these cases, our good friend Susan Toth (@TothSusan) returns to the podcast. Susan is a partner at Polishuk Camman & Steele and serves on the board for the Urban League of London and the London Police Services Board. (Listen to her previous visit to the podcast, wherein she investigates the Oakes Test.)

[In this discussion, it struck me that ‘identity politics‘ could be seen as amplified and galvanized when human rights compete with one another. It raises an interesting question: do human rights inspire or incite a culture of identity politics? If you are curious to explore the topic of identity politics further, come to Discussing the Identity Politics Debate on Monday, December 4, 2017.]

On Doctor Assisted Suicide

Last Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada overturned s. 14 and s. 241 of the Criminal Code, as they pertain to physicians assisting the death of terminally suffering patients. (My friend Susan Toth has a good review of the decision posted here for more background. The full court judgment is available here.)

There are some who argue that this decision devalues the lives of people living with disabilities. The logic goes like this: by explicitly affirming that a person suffering from a chronic and untreatable condition has the right to die with a physician’s assistance, the court is sending the message that a life of chronic disability is perhaps not worth living. Ergo the lives of individuals suffering from such debilitating conditions are worth less than the lives of everyone else. This is discriminatory, as it signals the devaluation of a human life for arbitrary reasons.

For a counter perspective, I’d like to propose a variant angle. At present, I am relatively able bodied, strong, and agile. As such, I possess a remarkably interesting option: I have the ability to end my own life at any time. There is no ultimate legal authority that can deny me the right of suicide, and this is true for as long as I live freely and independently. If — or, I should say, when — I find myself suffering in a terminal condition and lose a critical degree of my strength and mobility, I subsequently lose capacity to voluntarily end my own life. In a severe state, my choice to live or die is not really my own anymore, but completely in the hands of others (who are more or less compelled to keep me alive for as long as possible, regardless of the pain).

Therefore, instead of diminishing my humanness, granting me the option of suicide returns to me a right that my disability stole from me. It restores my innate right to choose existence. In this sense, restoring the option to die might be interpreted as rehumanizing, because it is an option that every other person in a non-terminal, non-palliative, non-chronic condition possesses by default. By no means am I compelled to exercise this option, but simply because the option is restored, I can once again live my life on the same basic premise as every other person: I’m alive right now because I choose to be.

Therefore, the right to a doctor-assisted suicide does not diminish the value or worth of a person with severe disabilities, rather it reestablishes a fundamentally intrinsic value that belongs to every living person.

By no means am I trying to speak on behalf of every person with a disability here. Far from it. This is only a personal analysis. When I suddenly find myself in a condition that permanently eliminates my basic human capacity to choose existence, I would be relieved to live in a society that continued to legally protect my ability to make my own decisions, even long after I physically lose the capacity to act on my decisions for myself.

Ability or disability has nothing to do with the value of a human life. A life is worth living as long as the person living it, whatever their condition, wishes to live.