Canada is preparing to legalize and regulate possession of marijuana – with a target date of July 1, 2018.
It's a long overdue public policy with sound economic and health arguments to back it up, notably:
- More harm is caused by criminal prohibition and prosecution than the use of marijuana itself;
- Criminal laws prohibiting possession do not deter use;
- Decriminalization of possession does not lead to greater use;
- Decriminalization frees up resources for police and the courts to deal with more serious crimes;
- Profits (or taxes) from sales go into public coffers instead of to organized crime.
Here's the thing: Every one of those arguments apply to every drug, from hash to heroin. So why stop at marijuana?
If you want to lessen the harms caused by drug use, why is possession ever a crime? Wouldn't the money and effort that goes into prosecuting drug use be better spent on providing better health care for drug users who are experiencing harm?
Canada has, to a certain extent, embraced the harm-reduction philosophy. We provide heroin to people with addiction in a medically controlled setting; we have supervised consumption sites; we have substitution programs that provide people with opioids addiction prescriptions for methadone or buprenorphine; and we have needle exchanges and distribution of safe crack kits.
We also have a Health Minister who is deeply engaged and compassionate, as she demonstrated in a recent talk at Canada's Drug Futures Forum, where she made a plea to not stigmatize "substance-use disorder." But heroin-assisted treatment exists at a single site, Crosstown Clinic in Vancouver. Despite endless promises, you can still count the supervised consumption sites on your fingers, and harm-reduction measures are hit and miss around the country.
In other words, these programs offer small bubbles of safety – they tend to be "no arrest zones," formally or informally – but drug use is still broadly criminalized and that is a profoundly stigmatizing and unhealthy reality.
People have always used psychoactive substances – and they always will. They do so principally for one of two reasons, for pleasure, or to relieve pain (physical and emotional). About 90 per cent of people who use illicit drugs don't have a drug problem. Same goes for licit drugs like alcohol. Some people like wine, others a few tokes, some the occasional snort of cocaine or a hit of MDMA.
Very few users become addicted, regardless of the drug, and those who do almost all have an illness, and they will not be dissuaded (or cured for that matter) by prosecution. Not to mention that punitive anti-drug measures harm the marginalized and racialized disproportionately.
Decriminalizing drugs is not a radical idea – at least not once you dispense with the hysteria. Mainstream groups like the Canadian Public Health Association support decriminalization because, when you look at the science dispassionately, it works.
There is also good real-world evidence. About 25 countries have decriminalized drug possession to varying degrees. The most notable is Portugal, which in 2001, passed groundbreaking laws that essentially allow anyone to hold a 10-day supply of drugs for personal use – whether it's 25 grams of marijuana, two grams of cocaine or one gram of heroin, ecstasy or amphetamines.
Instead of sending people to jail, drug users can be sent to a "dissuasion panel" for a chat; most people receive no penalty (though fines and community service are possible), and those who seem to have an illness are prescribed therapy or other forms of treatment.
Since the change was enacted, there has been little change in the levels of drug use, the rates of infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis C (which are often spread through needle-sharing) are down sharply and overdoses have dropped by a factor of five.
This is not to suggest decriminalization is a silver bullet. Portugal has also invested the savings from not prosecuting drug users into harm-reduction measures. But those programs have been more effective because they have removed the stigma for people who need help from thinking they are criminals.
The war on drugs has been an abject failure on many levels and none more so than the fact that, in our society, there is much more abuse of drug users than there is abuse of drugs.
That needs to stop, for economic and health reasons. Decriminalization is not, as some contend, giving up on people. On the contrary, it is about giving them responsibility along with rights.
Legalizing and regulating marijuana possession is a start, but we should not content ourselves with that baby step.