Pubdate: Tue, 11 Apr 2017
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2017 The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Andre Picard
Page: 11


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 such as 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

Decriminalizing drugs is not a radical idea - at least not once you
dispense with the hysteria. Mainstream groups such as 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 such as 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.
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MAP posted-by: Matt