Why Decriminalize Drugs?

On Thursday, May 24th the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition released a report on Canadian drug policy. The report calls for the replacement of Canada’s National Anti-Drug Strategy with one focused on health and human rights, the scale-up of comprehensive health and social services, including housing and treatment services that engage people with drug problems; more robust educational programs about safer drug use, the decriminalization of all drugs for personal use and the creation of a regulatory system for adult cannabis use.

The Canadian media responded quickly to our recommendation to decriminalize personal possession of drugs with questions about how this approach would work, especially when it comes to drugs like heroin and cocaine. Canada’s Conservative government also reacted swiftly to media coverage of our report and publicly dismissed our proposal to decriminalize the personal use of all other drugs.

Let’s be very clear about what the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition is recommending: the full legal regulation of cannabis for adult use and the decriminalization of possession of small quantities of all other drugs for personal use. We do not at this time recommend full legal regulation of drugs other than cannabis; nor do we suggest that all currently illegal drugs should become widely available. Decriminalization of possession of these drugs will not address the harms associated with an underground market. But it is a first step towards a more effective policy. Decriminalization, a strategy currently in use by up to 30 countries world-wide, has been quietly adopted in the wake of the escalating costs of prohibition and its failure to stem the tide of drug use and eliminate drug markets.

Politicians still insist that decriminalizing drug use would send the “wrong message”. This idea is grounded in the false belief that criminalizing drugs keeps people from using them and lessening penalties for drug use will in fact result in higher rates of drug use.  But in countries and regions where decriminalization has been implemented, this has just not been the case. As the Global Commission on Drug Policy suggested in 2011,

“A key idea behind the ‘war on drugs’ approach was that the threat of arrest and harsh punishment would deter people from using drugs. In practice, this hypothesis has been disproved – many countries that have enacted harsh laws and implemented widespread arrest and imprisonment of drug users and low-level dealers have higher levels of drug use and related problems than countries with more tolerant approaches. Similarly, countries that have introduced decriminalization, or other forms of reduction in arrest or punishment, have not seen the rises in drug use or dependence rates that had been feared.”

International comparisons also show us that there is no correlation between the harshness of enforcement and the prevalence of drug use. Even in states that have decriminalized all drugs, the sky has not fallen. In 2000, Portugal moved to decriminalize all drugs, including cocaine and heroin, at the same time as it scaled up the availability of services to address drug use problems. By moving personal possession away from law enforcement, drug use did not rise significantly, especially when compared with neighbouring countries. Portugal has also seen a reduction in illegal drug use among problematic drug users and teens, a reduced burden on the criminal justice system, and a significant drop in HIV infections and drug-related deaths.

Prohibition has failed. Drug use is still high, incarceration for drug offenses is increasing and despite billions of dollars spent over the years, law enforcement has failed to meet its objectives of protecting public health and public safety.

One of the drugs that causes the most health and public safety harms – alcohol — is completely legal and widely available yet other drugs with a relatively small public health footprint remain completely illegal. Using the criminal law to discourage a behaviour like drug use only throws the law into disrepute because a complex phenomena like harmful drug use is the result of many factors, none of which the law, police, courts or prisons are prepared to address.

In preparing our report, we talked to people across the country – service providers, family members, people who use drugs — and they told us again and again that Canada’s outdated approach to drug policy is hurting our citizens. In fact, using law enforcement to curb drug use increases its harms by driving it into the shadows. The criminalization of drug use also makes it more difficult to engage people in vital and life-saving health care services.

We need to overhaul our approach to drugs. Globally, the current system of drug control is under considerable pressure to change. Some national governments have begun to chart their own paths when it comes to drug control, including experimenting with decriminalization. It’s time to follow suit, and modernise Canada’s legislative, policy and regulatory frameworks that address drugs.

Connie Carter

About Connie Carter

Connie Carter, Ph.D. is the Senior Policy Analyst at the CDPC and a graduate of the UVIC Department of Sociology. She received a Bombardier Fellowship for her work analyzing citizen groups and government policy-makers as they responded to the issue of crystal meth use in BC in the early 2000s.

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