If one were attempting to list the worst policy blunders of the past century, the War on Drugs would be somewhere between Vietnam and Prohibition. Even Stephen Harper, a virulent opponent of decriminalizing drugs, conceded as much in 2012, saying, “the current approach is not working.”
Canada’s drug policy has received attention recently, with Justin Trudeau’s pot admission and Peter MacKay’s consideration of ticketing options for marijuana possession. While ending the trillion-dollar boondoggle that is the War on Drugs gains momentum in the United States, Canada is moving in the opposite direction, however, with a war on drugs-lite. Like most things Canadian, it is less extreme than its U.S. counterpart, but its existence should unsettle all Canadians.
The country can build as many prisons as there is space, but the simple fact remains that criminalizing drug use has not and does not produce results. Illicit drug sales are still somewhere between $7-billion and $10-billion a year while law enforcement costs are over $2-billion annually. The combined value of these expenditures is greater than Canada spends on First Nation health services, veterans’ health care, health research, and public health programs, combined. On the streets, possession of hard drugs has increased by 89 per cent over the last ten years.
The Conservatives’ Safe Streets and Communities Act is part of the problem. Passed in 2011, increased existing mandatory minimum sentences for drugs, doubled the maximum penalty for manufacturing Schedule II drugs like marijuana, and failed to include a legislative exception for mental illness and other extenuating circumstances.
It is as if the entire enterprise that is the U.S. War on Drugs did not happen. The U.S. spends more than $50-billion annually policing its citizens’ drug habits, spending three times as much on each inmate as it does on each student.
Unfortunately, Canada’s history here is as equally blemished as the United States’. In 1908, the passing of the Opium Act was explicitly tied to racist sentiment towards Chinese Canadians, who were discriminated further when Mackenzie King, as the first minister of labour, expanded the law. Marijuana users were similarly painted as criminals from the orient. In 1972, the Senate Le Dain Commission on drugs concluded that law enforcement techniques were “inconsistent, if not contradictory” and recommended the decriminalization of cannabis. The Trudeau government rejected the Commission’s findings.
Canada’s War on Drugs doesn’t just stop in the streets, it extends deep into South America where Ottawa has joined Washington’s failed military campaigns to dismantle drug cartels. Canada has a presence in Colombia, Belize, and Brazil, as well as the Central American states, where Ottawa is giving aid and training troops. In 2012, Stephen Harper announced the Canada Initiative for Security in Central America (CISCA), a $25-million program in Latin America. Fighting narco-terrorists might ostensibly be in Canada’s interests, but there is little evidence of any successes fighting criminal gangs abroad, whether they are drug cartels or the Taliban.
Such campaigns are also terribly costly. The U.S.-backed war in Colombia has claimed 15,000 lives and the drug war in Mexico has led to the death or disappearance of 100,000 Mexicans. All of this has happened as the purity of drugs has increased and their street price has plummeted. Why is Canada embracing such policies?
The arguments for decriminalizing, legalizing, and regulating drugs are well known. Colorado and Washington State recently legalized marijuana and are projecting tax revenues of $134-million and $129-million, respectively. From an economics standpoint, fighting this drug war is as absurd as was the criminalization of alcohol in the 1920s.
The disquieting impulse the anti-drug crusaders share is the puritan wish to control desires and create a drug-free Utopia by excommunicating sinners behind steel bars. The Conservatives are tapping into a well of religious sentiment in this country to advance policies that have proved ineffective elsewhere. Ottawa should refocus its attention instead on creating opportunities for Canadians born into broken families and neglected neighbourhoods, and initiate new programs to combat poverty. Attempting to create heaven on earth is a fanciful dream, and like all wars on sin, it too will end in abject failure.
Omer Aziz is a writer, journalist, and recent Commonwealth and Pitt Scholar at Cambridge University. He tweets at @omeraziz12.