Jailed for Possession: Illegal Drug Use, Regulation, and Power in Canada, 1920–1961


243 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-9029-X
DDC 362.29'16'09710904




Reviewed by Dave Bennett

David Bennett is the national director of the Department of Workplace Health, Safety and Environment at the Canadian Labour Congress in Ottawa.


Jailed for Possession is a social history of drug use in Canada from
1920, the year of the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act, to 1961, when the
Narcotic Control Act was passed—the “classic period” of narcotics
control. The drugs covered are the opiates (opium, morphine, and heroin)
and cocaine. The social history is well-rounded, with full descriptions
of the part played by drug users, government regulators, doctors, social
workers, and the police. While there is some attempt to provide
comprehensive statistics on drug use and enforcement, the book is rich
with case examples and anecdotal evidence.

Catherine Carstairs also has a policy agenda, contending that the
effective enforcement of the law at the street level, with draconian
penalties, does more social harm than good. Here, the book is less
successful, giving the impression that an academic tract in social
history has been presented as a provocative book to give it more market

On one issue, Carstairs’s policy conjecture is convincing: that a
harsh enforcement approach did nothing to choke off the supply of hard
drugs, that it radically disrupted users’ lives and harmed their

In other areas, the policy agenda is poorly articulated. Carstairs
concedes that intensive policing did play a part in reducing drug use in
the classic period, which dampens the argument for a more lenient
approach. She wants to attack the root causes of drug use. But her
contention that the root causes lie in poverty, social inequality, and a
consumer-driven society is a mere passing observation, not an inference
from the social history that the author has set down so well.


Carstairs, Catherine., “Jailed for Possession: Illegal Drug Use, Regulation, and Power in Canada, 1920–1961,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 22, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/15852.