Daniel Bear is a professor in the school of public safety at Sheridan College.
Today, we observe the United Nations International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. In a year that has already seen everything from the legalization of cannabis in two U.S. states to the Pope condemning drug legalization, Canadians should take pause and assess where our drug policy is, and where it should be heading.
In 1998, the UN aimed to eradicate all coca and poppy plants within a decade, but in 2009, that goal was abandoned in favour of trying to keep drug use below 5 per cent of the world population. This shift to what academics have called the “less heroic stance” of the new drug war has been mirrored elsewhere, as societies realized that enforcement-based prohibition models simply cannot win.
Portugal and the Czech Republic have decriminalized drugs, Uruguay has legalized cannabis, Bolivia is licensing coca growers and even the United States has stepped back on its harshest mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drugs. The world has come to see the futility of enforcement, and is embracing support, treatment and community-based responses to drug problems.
Canada sits on the cusp of embracing this new smarter stance. We have the first government-sanctioned supervised injection site in North America operating in B.C. These facilities have been shown to reduce the spread of disease and reduce the harms associated with heroin use.
More importantly, they put drug users in contact with health-care professionals who are best suited to improve drug abusers’ long-term outcomes. The promotion of “harm reduction” practices, such as providing clean needles, is supported by the Canadian Nurses Association and by the Canadian Medical Association as a “central pillar in a comprehensive public health approach to disease prevention and health promotion.” Opiate deaths are on the rise in Canada, but since 2007, the federal government has eliminated support for harm reduction from the National Anti-Drug Strategy.
Unfortunately, we are still largely mired in a bygone era of drug policy. Drug offences have continued to rise, even as both the crime rate and drug use rates fall. The National Anti-Drug Strategy recommended targeting the most harmful drugs, but cannabis possession offences have risen by a quarter since 2004, making up more than 50 per cent of all drug offences as of 2012.
The introduction of mandatory minimum sentences, a tactic borrowed from our southern neighbour, is another sign that we’re not yet on the right path. This policy is trumpeted as a way to combat high-level drug dealers, but tends to nab only the most low-level and vulnerable in the drug trade. These individuals are often addicts themselves, and their risk of acquiring HIV jumps dramatically if they are incarcerated. This policy has failed miserably in the United States, and thankfully, Canadian courts have stymied it here for now.
As an American, I’ve seen the harms of the drug war in my homeland: More than two million people in prison, billions of dollars wasted, countless lives lost to violence, disease and overdose. I hate the idea that my adopted country would go down that failed path.
Canada has the opportunity to lead North America, if not the world, with drug policies that are based on evidence, that rely on health-care professionals to treat and support drug abusers, that de-emphasize the role of police and incarceration to combat drugs, and that consider alternatives to the prohibitionist model. We mustn’t fail to enact them.