Toronto this week became the first city in the world to formally endorse the Vienna Declaration that states that war-on-drugs-style prohibitions are a costly failure, denounces the "severe negative consequences" of such policies both in terms of public health and crime rates, and urges a shift in emphasis to regulation and harm reduction.
It would be easy to dismiss the city council's decision as a meaningless gesture by local politicians working well out of their depth, except that the push to decriminalize, not only marijuana, but hard drugs like cocaine and heroin as well, is a rising international phenomenon, being driven by serious and credible sources, not by local politicians or stoner websites.
In the United Kingdom, for example, the outgoing president of the Royal College of Physicians, the chairman of the Bar Council of England and Wales, and an analysis in the British Medical Journal all have argued in the past month that the prohibitions have been ineffective in controlling drug use, and have harmed society.
In response to the mounting evidence, some countries and subnational jurisdictions have begun to move toward more liberal laws. For example, Mexico, which has seen a bloody war erupt on its soil by narcotics traffickers, has recently moved to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and other drugs.
The Vienna Declaration states, "There is no evidence that increasing the ferocity of law enforcement meaningfully reduces the prevalence of drug use." On the contrary, the expert panel behind the document - which included several Canadians - argues that law enforcement has failed to prevent the availability of illegal drugs; indeed drug prices over the years have been falling, and drug purity rising.
The Royal College of Physicians' Sir Ian Gilmore, in his valedictory speech, showed that the total prohibition of drugs "has not been successful at reducing not only the health burden, but also the impact on crime." He said there's a "strong case for a different approach." That view is echoed in the BMJ analysis, which says the ban on drugs has been "counterproductive," and cites a 2008 World Health Organization study that found "countries with stringent user-level illegal drug policies did not have lower levels of use than countries with liberal ones." Indeed, the BMJ analysis suggests the opposite may be true, pointing to evidence that in some jurisdictions, such as Portugal, decriminalization has accomplished what the prohibition failed to, namely decreased use, especially among school-age young people.
The Canadian government has made it clear that it will not support the Vienna Declaration and will countenance no change to this country's hard-line National Anti-Drug Strategy and current federal drug policy. Similarly, Britain's Home Office, despite the presence in the governing coalition of the decriminalization-minded Liberal Democrats, has so far refused to take the bait either, issuing a statement that says, "Drugs such as heroin, cocaine and cannabis are extremely harmful and can cause misery to communities across our country."
Lumping marijuana in with the harder drugs is foolish, but it is otherwise a fair statement. The goal of public policy should be to reduce drug use, reduce drug crime and reduce drug harm. The question is whether punitive drug laws alleviate such misery or are, as the Vienna Declaration implies, a major contributor to it. Evidence supports the latter conclusion. For example, outside sub-Saharan Africa, injection drug use now accounts for about one in three new cases of HIV.
The Insite supervised-injection site in Vancouver is a recognition in Canada that there is another path, to treat drug addicts not as criminals but as people requiring medical assistance. Few in Canada are ready to contemplate the decriminalization and regulation of drugs like cocaine and heroin, but the country did seriously entertain the decriminalization of marijuana under the Liberal government. Bill C-17, which provided for fines but no criminal record for possession of small amounts of marijuana, died, however, and the Conservatives have taken a much harder line, adopting war-on-drugs rhetoric.
The record suggests current federal government policy will not succeed in achieving any reduction of use, crime or harm. Canada, consequently, should resurrect the legislation to decriminalize marijuana and embark on a broader national discussion about policy on harder drugs, and the need for harm reduction in Canada.