Pubdate: Sat, 16 Sep 2017
Source: Toronto Star (CN ON)
Copyright: 2017 The Toronto Star


NDP leadership candidate Jagmeet Singh's recent promise that, as prime
minister, he would move quickly to drop criminal penalties for
possession or purchase of small amounts of all drugs will no doubt
seem radical to many.

Broad-based decriminalization would be a stark reversal after decades
of increasingly punitive policies. And this would certainly add a
layer of complication to the already-complicated task of legalizing
marijuana, which Ottawa and the provinces are struggling to do by next
summer. The Trudeau government's current position on decriminalization
is understandable: Ottawa already has its hands full with pot.

But Singh's idea, while politically bold (none of his New Democratic
rivals would go so far), reflects a view that is relatively
uncontroversial among public health experts.

The United Nations, the World Health Organization, the International
Red Cross, the Canadian Public Health Association, the medical health
officers of British Columbia, Vancouver, Toronto, not to mention many
front-line health workers - they all agree: treating drug users like
criminals is a costly, dangerous mistake. And as Canada's epidemic of
opioid overdoses deepens, this chorus is growing louder and more
urgent. It's time Ottawa listened. In Canada, as elsewhere, the long
tradition of criminalizing drug use has backfired. If the goal of the
war on drugs has been to reduce the use of psychoactive substances and
the harm these drugs cause, to improve public health and public
safety, then it has been an abject failure.

If, on the other hand, the goal has been to drive up the cost of
policing, contribute to a national crisis of court delays, compound
racial and class inequities, and unnecessarily criminalize and deepen
the suffering of people living with physical and mental illness, then
it has been a great success.

The Trudeau government seems mostly to understand this. Many of the
arguments it has used to sell its welcome pot legislation clearly
apply, too, to decriminalizing possession of all drugs.

Consider, for instance, that fewer than half of the tens of thousands
of people arrested annually for drug-related crimes are convicted,
which suggests a vast waste of police resources. And those who are
convicted end up with criminal records that can affect jobs, foreign
travel, even citizenship - punishments that, in most cases, far
outweigh the crime and which drastically increase the likelihood of
future, more serious criminality.

Consider, too, that those subject to such disproportionate punishments
are disproportionately people of colour, Indigenous people and people
living in poverty. The U.S. example has made clear that getting tough
on drug offences is a recipe neither for justice nor for public
safety, but for their opposites.

The war on drugs has also had the opposite of its intended effect on
public health. The evidence suggests prohibitions, on pot and other
drugs, do little to affect the rate of use. Instead, by stigmatizing
drug users, they discourage those who are addicted from seeking the
help they need and make it less likely that such help will be on
offer. A punitive approach to drug users has been shown to lead to
needless overdoses and higher rates of needle-transmitted diseases.

The benefits of decriminalization are not merely theoretical. Some 25
countries, and many subnational jurisdictions, have decriminalized
drugs to various degrees. Portugal, which has gone the furthest, is
also often cited as the most successful. In the 16 years since that
country stopped meting out criminal penalties for possession of small
amounts of drugs, the rate of use has remained the same. Meanwhile,
overdose deaths have been reduced by around 80 per cent and the rate
of HIV infection through intravenous drug use has become among the
lowest in Europe.

This is not the work of decriminalization alone. The Portuguese
government funnelled savings from reduced prosecutions into
harm-reduction programs, such as therapy for users. This is the model
Jagmeet Singh said he would seek to reproduce in Canada - and with
good reason. He is not talking about selling heroin and cocaine in
LCBO-like stores, but merely ceasing to treat the use and purchase of
small amounts of hard drugs as a matter for the justice system when it
is more properly a matter for the health system.

As part of its response to Canada's growing opioid epidemic, the
Trudeau government has rightly approved a number of safeinjection
sites, including three in Toronto. These are effectively zones of
decriminalization, in which users are given access to sterile
equipment as well as to medical treatment and counselling, without the
threat of arrest.

Safe-injection sites save lives. But each approval is slow and
controversial, in no small part because of the stigma created by our
current approach to drug policy. As a result, such sites remain few
and far between and too many drug users continue to suffer and die
needlessly, hiding from the state that should be their best hope for
healing. As the Portuguese model demonstrates, the harm reduction
philosophy that Ottawa is belatedly beginning to adopt is most
effective when paired with decriminalization.

Singh's idea is just that - an idea, not a policy. The past year of
pot debate has been a loud reminder that details and implementation
are hard and they matter. That will be truer still for a more
ambitious approach.

Nonetheless, most people who have examined the issue closely agree
that a more ambitious approach is necessary. More than 2,400 people
died last year as the result of overdoses on opioids alone. That
number is likely to rise this year. The temptation will be strong to
put this big, inevitably controversial idea off for another day, but
the urgency of our drug problem and the inadequacy of our current
solutions cannot be denied.
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MAP posted-by: Matt