The case for decriminalization

Seeking alternatives to the failed “War on Drugs”

Graphic by: Bradly Wohlgemuth

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The recent Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) proposal to ticket people found with 30 grams or less of marijuana is a tiny step in the right direction. But with Justin Trudeau now speaking out in favour of marijuana legalization, and 70 per cent of Canadians in favour of either legalization or decriminalization, it’s time the CACP and politicians stopped waffling around the issue with half-measures like ticketing, and take bold steps toward legalization.

However, legalizing marijuana does not go far enough; the Canadian government should look to Portugal’s example and decriminalize all drugs. The positive social and economic consequences of such a change would be profound.

Casualties of war

The American War on Drugs has been a catastrophic failure. Between 1970 and 2005, America’s prison population increased by 700 per cent to 2.3 million, resulting in the world’s highest incarceration rate – and while the U.S. has almost five per cent of the world’s total population, it has approximately 25 per cent of the world’s incarcerated population.

The U.S. has spent at least $1 trillion on drug policy enforcement since 1971, yet in 2010 “the number of U.S. drug-related deaths exceeded automobile fatalities,” and both availability and use of illicit drugs is on the rise. Even U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has spoken out against the longstanding policy of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, saying, “We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.”

If even the attorney general can admit that America’s hardline drug policy has gone pear-shaped—and even Texas conservative lawmakers have spoken out against it—it defies reason that Stephen Harper and his Conservative government imposed mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders in Canada with 2012’s omnibus Bill C-10, or that the Conservatives’ National Anti-Drug Strategy devotes the majority of its $528 million budget between 2012-2017 to law enforcement as opposed to treatment and public education.

The Canadian government has obviously learned nothing from America’s disastrous example—the failure of alcohol prohibition in the 1920s—or the successful examples of decriminalization and tolerance in Europe, such as in Portugal and the Netherlands. Canada’s American-style war on drugs will be a costly, inevitable failure.

Decriminalization in Portugal, the Netherlands

In 2001, Portugal became the first European Union country to decriminalize all drugs. As a result, there has been a 63 per cent increase in drug users seeking treatment and rehabilitation, facilitated by a significant increase in government funding for treatment centres and offers of therapy instead of jail time. This has resulted in the number of people infected with HIV who are drug addicts dropping from 50 per cent to 20 per cent, and new diagnoses of HIV among addicts dropping from approximately 3,000 to below 2,000 annually. The number of drug overdose deaths declined from 400 to 290 a year between 2001 and 2006, and “problematic” drug use and drug use among adolescents have decreased.

There has also been a 499 per cent increase in the amount of drugs seized by the authorities, as they are no longer burdened with penalizing individual drug users, and can instead focus their efforts and resources on large-scale drug traffickers.

The Netherlands also has a progressive drug policy based on distinguishing between “hard” and “soft” drugs, and big-time and small-time drug possession. “Soft” drugs such as marijuana, which is considered to pose an “acceptable risk,” are technically illegal, but their sale is tolerated in licensed shops that must follow certain guidelines. For example, these shops must be free of alcohol and so-called “hard” drugs, only sell marijuana to adults 18 years or older in quantities of no more than five grams, not advertise, and not cause any public disturbance. This frees up more time for law enforcement to crack down on large-scale drug operations that sell marijuana outside these regulations.

Drugs are not a crime issue

Partly as a result of these progressive drug policies, crime is on the decline: the Netherlands recently announced that it will close eight prisons because of the shortage of criminals. This is in sharp contrast to Harper’s $2 billion prison expansion plan.

Despite the fact that selling and purchasing small amounts of marijuana for personal use is effectively decriminalized in the Netherlands, the rate of marijuana usage among the Dutch is significantly lower than that among Canadians. In fact, despite Canada’s increasingly strict drug laws, a 2007 study conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that Canada’s rate of marijuana use is the highest in the industrialized world and more than four times the global average. The study found that in 2004, 16.8 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 15 and 64 consumed marijuana, which is double the Dutch rate.

Furthermore, a 2013 UNICEF study found that 28 per cent of Canadian youth aged 11, 13, and 15 years old had used marijuana within the past year, compared to around 17 per cent in the Netherlands and about 10 per cent in Portugal.

Even Canada has its own small but important example of successful progressive drug policy: the government-funded and run safe-injection site in downtown Vancouver, the first of its kind in North America. The facility had 376,149 visits by 9,259 individuals in 2012, with an average of 1,028 visits and 529 supervised injection visits daily. Individuals who visit the site are provided with clean needles, medical supervision, and counselling. Statistics show 497 overdose interventions, 3,418 clinical treatment interventions, 4,564 referrals to other social and health services, and almost 500 admissions to the adjoining detoxification treatment facility—all in 2012 alone—with a 49 per cent successful completion rate for the program. Every city should have a facility like this one.

The Netherlands has taken an even more radical approach to addictions treatment, with positive results. In 2009, the Dutch government approved the creation of clinics where heroin addicts are supervised by medical professionals and provided with free government-issued heroin. Addicts are monitored by cameras and mirrors, and allowed to consume specific, regulated quantities of pure, chemically-produced heroin, whose strength is constant. The free supply of heroin costs the state roughly 17,000 euros per client annually, which saves roughly 13,000 euros of public funds per addict annually due to a decrease in costs associated with crime, policing, and heath care.

Other European countries such as Switzerland, Denmark, England, and Germany have also incorporated heroin-assisted treatment into their public health strategy.

Drugs are not a crime issue. Drugs are a public health issue, and the sooner the Canadian government gets on board with that idea, the sooner we can start to really deal with these issues instead of dogmatically and mistakenly thinking we can “incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.” Eliminating drug use entirely is impossible; the focus must be on harm-reduction. The evidence is all there – it’s time to take off the blinders.

1 Comment on "The case for decriminalization"

  1. Al Capone. … also took full advantage of the criminal opportunities available during Prohibition.
    Prohibition is an absolute plague The use of drugs is NOT the real problem, the system that grants exclusive distribution rights to violent cartels, terrorists, and corrupt politicians most definitely is the problem. Legalize it, regulate it, make it safer, and tax it.
    Do a search for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition LEAP

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