(Like fighting the Taliban, curbing money laundering, reducing addiction rates, and ending the opioid crisis)
On Oct. 17 Canada became the first G7 country, and the second country worldwide, to fully legalize recreational cannabis.
This means that of the 4.2 million Canadians who use cannabis, those who use it recreationally are no longer criminals.
While this legislation is a landmark, it is only a first step.
Historically, drug prohibition has not not worked. But the western world has mostly refused to abandon it, and with disastrous results.
The United States has been engaged in a war on drugs since the Nixon administration in the 1970s, and currently spends $50 billion a year policing drug use.
Canada has largely aligned itself with this policy, fighting drug use with law enforcement efforts and following the U.S. military on campaigns against Central and South American cartels and the Taliban.
Both domestic and international efforts have failed.
Illicit drug sales in Canada are still valued as high as $10 billion every year, despite $2 billion of the budget being dedicated to law enforcement.
The value of illicit drug sales and law enforcement costs combined is more than what the Canadian government spends on First Nations’ health services, veterans’ health care, health research, and public health programs. In the past decade alone, possession of hard drugs on the street in Canada has gone up by 89 per cent.
Our prohibitive, punitive system is ineffective, with increasingly deadly consequences.
In Canada, the opioid crisis has killed over 8 000 people since 2016. In B.C., the epidemic has killed enough young people to lower statistical life expectancy of all residents by over a month.
While prescription opioids are a factor in the crisis, the main culprit in B.C. is fentanyl, which is cut into other illicit drugs, and is responsible for 56 per cent of overdoses in the province, according to statistics from January to April 2016.
Dealers adulterate drugs with fentanyl — a synthetic drug 20 to 40 times more toxic than heroin and 50 to 100 times more toxic than morphine — because it is cheap, addictive, and easy to produce. Illegal drugs have to be imported in large quantities, while potent replacements can be synthesized at home at a fraction of the cost or acquired in smaller amounts.
Canada’s combative approach to drug use has failed so badly that continuing to treat drug use as an offence is, quite frankly, criminal.
In Vancouver, where four people die of overdoses every day, fentanyl has essentially replaced more expensive heroin. Fentanyl is also showing up in meth, cocaine, MDMA, Xanax, ketamine, and acid.
Canada’s combative approach to drug use has failed so badly that continuing to treat drug use as an offence is, quite frankly, criminal. Decriminalization and legalization are far more effective options.
In the 1980s, 10 per cent of people in Portugal used heroin and the rate of HIV infection was the highest in the European Union.
Like the United States and Canada, Portugal had launched a war on drugs. As in the United States and Canada, the war had failed.
In 2001, Portugal decriminalized illicit drugs. Without the threat of criminal prosecution, health, psychiatry, employment, and housing services were able to work together to provide aid to people struggling with addiction. Thousands of addicts could access treatment programs free of charge, and law enforcement costs decreased. The money saved from decriminalization in Portugal has allowed more funds to go towards rehabilitation efforts, which has led drug use, HIV and hepatitis infection rates, overdose deaths, and drug-related crime to drop.
Portugal is proof that decriminalization can work and that a cultural shift regarding drug use is possible, though they are certainly not perfect. The country still struggles with establishing supervised sites for drug use and with making anti-overdose drugs easily accessible. But the nation’s successes still demonstrate a realistic alternative to North America’s failed system.
Canada has begun to creep forward. Cannabis legalization is a big step, and some medical professionals want to carry the trend further.
Psychotherapist and adjunct UVic professor Bruce Tobin, whose “Therapeutic Psilocybin for Canadians” project launched just before cannabis became legal, is preparing a case to make the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms medicinally accessible to end-of-life cancer patients.
Tobin agrees with studies showing that a psilocybin trip can alleviate the overwhelming anxiety associated with oncoming death that many terminal patients experience, but he is legally barred from fulfilling patients’ requests for this treatment.
Legalization allows for regulation, legal production, and quality control, which ensures a safe supply for those who choose to use drugs.
Even the federal government is beginning to acknowledge the failure of current policies, with both the Liberals and the NDP considering decriminalization of possession and consumption of illicit drugs in order to better combat the overdose crisis. Such changes are backed by recommendations from organizations like the Global Commission on Drug Policy and the World Health Organization.
But even decriminalization is not legalization. Production and sale of these drugs would still be punishable offences and people would still be accessing unsafe and illegal supplies. The resulting consequences are much farther-reaching than many people realize.
Chinese syndicates ship narcotics, including fentanyl, in huge quantities to Vancouver. The drugs fuel the opioid crisis, and the money is laundered through casinos and expensive real estate. Once the money is clean, it flows back to the Chinese chemical factories.
This system is so notorious that Australia’s intelligence community calls it the “Vancouver model” of transnational crime.
A true narco-state, Afghanistan supplies 85 per cent of the world’s opium. The drug trade provides the Taliban with 60 per cent of their income, and in some areas the terrorist group is indistinguishable from a cartel. In recent years, the Taliban has become increasingly involved in refining opium into heroin. Drug money has turned the organization into an unbeatable enemy, with new arms and recruits paid for by each spring’s opium harvest.
Some people will always choose to use mind-altering substances, and that choice is not inherently wrong.
Drug production in Afghanistan is directly related to illicit drug use in Canada. 90 per cent of the heroin on Canadian streets is traceable to the middle eastern country.
The same logic that applies to cannabis legalization applies to other drugs. Legalization allows for regulation, legal production, and quality control, which ensures a safe supply for those who choose to use drugs.
Yet western nations continue to cling to this idea that people who enjoy recreational drugs are bad, weak, or addicted.
The reality, though, is that some people will always choose to use mind-altering substances, and that choice is not inherently wrong.
Approximately 2 per cent of Canadians choose to use illicit drugs, not including cannabis. Most of these people briefly experiment and never use drugs again or integrate drugs into their social and domestic lives, just as most people do with alcohol. These drug users pose no more of a risk to their families or to the general public than the 77 percent of Canadians who drink alcohol or the 14 per cent who use cannabis.
Drug use does not necessarily imply drug addiction. In fact, without pre-existing vulnerabilities, long-term addiction and use-related problems are unlikely.
So, should the government have the right to tell illicit drug users that their intoxicant of choice is morally and legally abhorrent, while alcohol and cannabis are acceptable?
No, it should not.
Decriminalization, legalization, and regulation are common sense actions, especially given the historical reasons for criminalizing drugs in the first place.
Drugs were not made illegal for their dangers. Drugs were made illegal because the government was racist.
The 1908 Opium Act was a direct strike against Chinese immigrants. Cannabis, made illegal in 1923, was similarly associated with Asian immigrants.
Drug use is not a problem. Drug abuse is a problem. As a society, we need to learn to differentiate between the two.
In 1922, women’s rights activist Emily Murphy wrote a series of articles claiming that drugs would cause white girls to give in to Chinese men and have mixed-race babies. She called cannabis users “maniacs” who would “indulge in any sort of violence.”
Opiates are still illegal as recreational drugs, and cannabis has only just been legalized 46 years after the Senate Le Dain Commission recommended decriminalization in 1972.
Alcohol, a favoured mind-altering substance of white Canadians, was only briefly prohibited at the provincial level during and immediately following the First World War.
Criminalizing drugs has been a disastrously damaging experiment and, like the prohibition of alcohol, it has failed.
Obviously, decriminalization and legalization will not be quick or simple processes. Careful organization and regulation will be required to keep recreational users safe and to provide people struggling with drug abuse with resources to prevent their becoming long-term addicts.
The rewriting of law and restructuring of social services is not the only hurdle obstructing legalization. Drug use and drug-related convictions carry massive social stigma in many circles. Acceptance of mind-altering substance use as normal human behaviour would require a great cultural shift.
But by legalizing cannabis, we have proved we can treat recreational drug use as socially acceptable behaviour. We need to continue to dismantle the stigma surrounding drug use, so we can stop ostracizing people who use drugs for fun and those who struggle with addiction.
There are short-term challenges, but if Canada handles decriminalization and legalization right, there are long-term benefits.
Drug use is not a problem. Drug abuse is a problem. As a society, we need to learn to differentiate between the two, and we need to stop ascribing morality to either one. Because right now, our moralizing is killing people.