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New Film Details the Strange History of a 1972 Canadian Cannabis Study

The year is 1972. You just spent your summer grooving to The Rolling Stones and The Allman Brothers at Downtown Toronto’s infamous Rochdale College commune and you’ve just signed away the next 98 days of your life to the government in exchange for an (almost) all-expenses-paid trip to a facility where your number one job is to smoke weed!

Not only are you getting paid with free room and board, if you need a little scratch, you can always make more money by weaving Guatemalan belts.

It might sound like a pretty plush gig to your average toker today, but as the five female test subjects of the Miles Marijuana Study, Project E206, soon found out, being forced to smoke copious amounts of cannabis in a clinical setting wasn’t all peaches and patchouli.

A forthcoming film will explore the study, which stemmed from provincial skepticism toward cannabis at a time when as the federal government was considering reform. In the early 1970s, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government convened the “Le Dain Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs,” and poured millions into the study of the potential impact of decriminalizing cannabis for personal use.

At the time in Canada, possession would get you seven years in jail. If you gave some of your stash to a friend, it could land you behind bars for life—and penalties for actual trafficking were even worse.

5 Wacky Canadian Cannabis Laws You Didn’t Know Existed

According to Colin Brunton, The Marijuana Chronicles production manager who came of age documenting Toronto’s vibrant punk rock scene in the 1970s, and was named the production’s unofficial counter-culture consultant, kids would literally eat their spent roaches because they were so scared of being busted.

“Even if you got caught with one, you would get a conditional discharge with 12 months probation,” said Brunton.

Unease in Ontario

Ontario’s provincial government, led at the time by Conservative Premier John Robarts, didn’t see eye to eye with the feds. The gateway drug theory was commonly held, bolstered by the RCMP, and Ontario’s government worried that decriminalization could lead to “reefer madness.”

Is marijuana a ‘Gateway Drug’?

So, the provincial government and the Addiction Research Foundation conducted their own clinical studies like the Miles Marijuana Study. Using government-approved “research” cannabis provided by Health Canada, scientists set out to measure the potential risks of decriminalization, its impact on the precious youth of Ontario, and how consumption affected consumers’ productivity.

But for participants, the research could be traumatic. What some initially saw as an extension of the free-spirited vibe of communal living turned out to be more of a work camp: Subjects were effectively held hostage and given strong and stronger joints, as if to keep them as comatose as possible. If participants didn’t comply, they would be kicked out of the study, losing out on the $250 payment and all of their profits from belt making.

Mixed Evidence

Behaviours observed during the study provided mixed evidence on the effects of cannabis consumption. The most motivated of test subjects, for example, would wake up at 4 a.m. so they could get a head start on their weaving and earn the extra money.

This type of go-getter behaviour did not bode well for the issuers of the study. In fact, the final conclusion defied all of their hypotheses.

John Kagel, an economics professor at Ohio State University, who worked with data from the study, perhaps put it best.

“If you legalize marijuana, were you going to get a bunch of stoned people just hanging out smoking dope all the time and not doing any work? This is fairly convincing evidence that wasn’t going to happen,” he said.

Despite the massive cache of data the Miles study produced, it was, for the most part, swept under the rug. Few were aware of the experiment until Toronto Star investigative reporter Diana Zlomislic uncovered the fiasco in a jaw-dropping 2013 feature. Results of the study, Zlomislic noted, had yet to be made public.

The federal Le Dain Commission recommended decriminalization but the action was railroaded by subsequent governments, until Trudeau Jr. picked up his father’s torch as Prime Minister and passed Canada’s Cannabis Act in October 2018.

The Chronicles

It’s an odd bit of Canadian history in our new legal era. And soon the story will be coming to a screen near you as the focus of a Canadian indie film that’s recently wrapped filming.

Directed by Craig Pryce (Good Witch, Dark Oracle) who optioned the story’s rights from Zlomislic, the film promises a diverse female-led cast starring both rising and established Canadian talent, such as Julia Sarah Stone (The Killing, Wet Bum) as one of the five test subjects, and Paulino Nunes (Gangland Undercover, Shadow Hunters) as the fictionalized doctor leading the study.

“Of the doctors, the behaviourists, and the psychologists who were trying to prove that their suppositions on weed were true, everybody [in the study] had an agenda,” Pryce says, “except for the girls. This film is about what they went through and how they bonded together and overcame the circumstances.”

The Marijuana Chronicles is currently in post-production and is slated to enter the festival circuit once completed. Stay tuned for a release date to be announced in the months to come.

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Jesse Ship

Jesse Ship is a Toronto-based journalist, creative writer, and social media professional with a youth culture bent towards all things groovy. His work has appeared in outlets such as The Toronto Star, Metro, Coachella Mag, Vice Thump, Huffington Post, BlogTO and many others. Published works have appeared in Fodor’s Travel Guides and SCI: The Jewish Comix Anthology Vol. 2 by AH Comics Inc.

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