Pubdate: Sat, 28 Aug 2010
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2010 The Globe and Mail Company


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

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. 
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