If Socrates were alive and living in Canada, the Harper government would move to put his name on the subversive blacklist.
Socrates believed that the unexamined life is not worth living, and last week's budget cuts by the Harper government to the Law Commission of Canada, the Court Challenges Program and the medical marijuana research fund show that this administration is committed to unexamined ignorance in governance. I may not be interested in having philosopher kings run this country, but it would be nice if those in power at least had the desire to develop public policy based on information, debate and analysis.
The academic community and the legal profession have roundly condemned these cuts. One could dismiss this criticism as self-serving, as it comes from a constituency that stands to gain from research grants under the fallen programs. Indeed, for some academics the Law Commission has been a gravy train allowing professors to ruminate for cash.
But more to the point, these cuts have taken a giant dump on potentially meaningful legal work, my own included. For me, the Court Challenges Program was the only source of funding for legal actions to challenge unconstitutional government programs and legislation related to marijuana. There are no wealthy benefactors in Canada who routinely fund the pursuit of civil liberties.
I was fortunate to receive some modest funding in the past to help establish the constitutional right to choose marijuana as medicine, but now that the right is entrenched the government has chosen to pull funding for research designed to uncover the scientific basis for marijuana's therapeutic effects.
It would be a mistake to dismiss the criticism of these budget cuts as belly-aching. I have always thought it's a waste of taxpayers' money to fund research exploring esoteric academic projects like the hegemonic and political implications of the mating rituals of the Canadian beaver, but in this case the government has cut programs that could contribute in a meaningful way to the development of public policy.
The Law Commission of Canada had been working on a long-term project examining the limits of criminalization. The project was designed to determine which social problems should be addressed by criminal prohibitions and which are best dealt with by other mechanisms of social control.
Obviously, the Harper government is not interested in definable limits or principled development of criminal law. This government wants the power to criminalize anything it believes will lead to voter support in the next election. Harper knows it's easier to pass "get tough" legislation in the absence of an independent government agency with a mandate to objectively study and explore criminal justice issues.
There's an old maxim that "it's impossible to defeat an ignorant man in argument." Harper understands that by remaining ignorant he can successfully champion his reactionary and unwise policy decisions.
To ensure that ignorance reigns supreme, it's important for the state to also minimize the occasions for challenging government policy, and to that end it was a brilliant move to scrap the Court Challenges Program.
Although funding opportunities were limited, it was an effective medium for giving a voice to political dissent. As much as it may seem anomalous, and perhaps masochistic, for a government to fund cases that challenge its authority, this anomaly actually serves to stabilize democratic institutions. Without the option of voicing dissent through a funded legal process, people and groups who believe their rights are being violated may eventually choose civil disobedience or riotous demonstrations as the medium of dissent. As much as I like the occasional street demo run amok, it makes more sense to give people a voice in a court of law so they don't need to throw rocks on the street.
The breathtaking myopia of these budget cuts is best demonstrated by the elimination of a fund for medical marijuana research. Other sources of government funding still exist for conducting this research, but in making this rather insignificant cut this government wanted to send the clear message that it has little interest in anything to do with marijuana.
If Harper would take his head out of the sand, he might notice that current research in Israel and Spain has shown that synthetic cannabinoids have tumour-reducing properties. In light of the promising international research being conducted into marijuana's diverse applications, I'd have thought we would be expanding the research program to finally resolve the question of whether marijuana as medicine is a pipe dream or the next panacea.
This government is constitutionally compelled by court order to run and manage a medical marijuana program, and over 2,000 people have been authorized to use pot for various ailments; however, the government clearly does not want to continue spending its money to act as gatekeeper for people's therapeutic choices.
Apparently, Harper doesn't realize that the only way this government can get out of the business of supervising the medical choices of seriously ill Canadians is either to decriminalize marijuana entirely or foster and support clinical research designed to develop cannabinoid medicines. Much-neglected medical research on the cannabis plant and its various cannabinoids will eventually lead to diverse product development, and when this happens there will no longer be a constitutional need for the government to grow pot and sign permission slips for patients to use this medicine.
Last week's cuts reminded me of Brian Mulroney's decision to axe the Canadian Sentencing Commission in the late 1980s. After extensive research and consultation, this commission recommended establishing a permanent independent agency to monitor sentencing decisions, with a view to prescribing clear and consistent guidelines to judges on the critical issues of when to send someone to jail and what should be the appropriate range of prison sentences.
This never happened, and 20 years later we are still moaning and groaning about the inconsistencies and perceived leniency of our sentencing practices.
To solve the problem, this current government is proposing minimum sentences and cutting back on non-custodial options. Of course, in 1987 the commission presented clear and persuasive evidence demonstrating the futility of this approach.
Harper should be thankful that Mulroney axed the commission, as there is no one around today to tell Harper, and the Canadian people, that the criminal justice policies of this current government are textbook examples of the dangers of ill-informed and closed-minded policy development.
Fools are always doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.