On this day in 1969, an Edmonton pharmacologist was calling on the province to change how it dealt with drug users.
The University of Alberta's George B. Frank told a counselling convention that young people "are much more harmed by the law than the drug." Frank's comments came when concern over cannabis use was at its height — while it had been in use in Canada for decades, its popularity exploded in the 1960s, primarily among teens and young adults.
The government's response was to use the courts to try and curb cannabis use. In 1961, the Narcotics Control Act instituted new, harsher penalties for drug crimes. At the beginning of the 1960s, cannabis cases across Canada were in the dozens. In 1972, there were more than 12,000 cannabis-related convictions.
Dr. Frank's frustrations were shared by a growing chorus who pushed for lesser penalties, or even legalization, as time went on. The late 1970s saw a series of public demonstrations at the Alberta Legislature on July 1, with thousands calling for legalization, according to the Edmonton Journal.
Legalization would come, almost 40 years later, with Bills C-45 and C-46 in 2018. Alberta quickly became a hot spot for both cannabis producers and consumers — in 2019, CBC reported it was Canada's top market with sales of almost $125 million.
While the cannabis question might be settled, the larger debate on how to handle drug use in Alberta still remains fiercely contested. The province is in the grips of an opioid crisis which saw a record 1,144 deaths last year alone.
Many have called for opioid addiction to be treated as a public health issue rather than a criminal one, arguing that harsh criminal penalties do more harm than good — echoing Dr. Frank's comments from 40 years earlier. However, the provincial government has opposed measures like safe injection sites, citing social disorder around the facilities as reason to cut funding and close several down. The approach has drawn criticism from leadership in some of the cities hardest hit by overdose deaths. Earlier this month, Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said much of the responsibility for recent overdose deaths lays "squarely at the feet of the government of Alberta."