Pubdate: Wed, 24 Jan 2018
Source: Vancouver Sun (CN BC)
Copyright: 2018 Postmedia Network Inc.
Author: Susan Boyd
Page: A9


Punitive approach behind OD crisis, Susan Boyd says.

Canada has been inching toward legal regulation of cannabis for many
years. But the fears that paralyzed our country for more than a
century are still very much in evidence, despite decades of proof that
none of the punitive policies we cling to help reduce drug-related

Increasingly, drug prohibition is understood as an issue of social
justice and human rights by those who have fought for a better way.
The history of Canadian drug prohibition is marked by many pivotal
moments and challenges to the status quo, brought forward with passion
and insight by community activists, people who use drugs,
organizations, constitutional lawyers, researchers, and health and
service providers.

Yet here we are in 2018, gripped by an opioid overdose crisis of epic
proportion, poised to legalize use of a drug that almost half of all
Canadians have tried, yet still looking for ways to punish people,
right up to continuing to arrest them for cannabis possession until
the moment that the Cannabis Act becomes law.

Those who have fought against drug prohibition that mostly targets the
poor and the vulnerable had high hopes for our government's desire for
a new approach to cannabis regulation. After all, publicly funded (and
uniformly rejected) reports from as far back as the 1950s have urged a
rethink about drug policy. But when the federal government tabled the
Cannabis Act last April, it was clear we'd failed to make a clean
break from prohibition.

Unlike tobacco regulation, the Cannabis Act includes harsh criminal
penalties for some offences. Unlike alcohol, the controls on cannabis
production, sales and distribution could lead to arrest and
punishment, especially of those who have been historically policed for
drug offences: impoverished youth, young adults, black and Indigenous
people, and cannabis activists.

These groups are no more criminal than others, but without question
they're criminalized. Prejudice, class bias, systemic racism and
colonialism shape their criminal-justice encounters at every level -
from policing, arrest, sentencing and incarceration to release.

Canada has been deeply wedded to a punitive approach to drug use for
all of its history. Many Canadians continue to see it as the right
approach, fearing that unless we continue to "crack down" on drug
offences, civilized society as we know it will unravel.

What we fail to see is the harm a punitive approach causes. It's why
an estimated 4,000 Canadians died of drug overdoses last year, a
shattering and traumatizing phenomenon for families, emergency
responders, and peer and front-line workers struggling with
unprecedented numbers of preventable drug deaths.

In Canada, governments since the early 1950s have solicited numerous
thoughtful and thorough examinations of the impact of illegal drug
use. Every report has reached virtually the same conclusion:
Criminalization doesn't work. We didn't listen then, and we're still
not listening closely now.

Most drug use doesn't cause problems. Where there are drug-related
problems, they're best treated as social and health issues, because
having to buy drugs of unknown quality on the black market is exactly
what fuels our overdose crisis. Cannabis, in particular, is a
pleasurable social activity for most users, much like having a glass
of wine or beer.

The Cannabis Act is set to become law this summer, but dozens of
questions remain unanswered. Will government support small cannabis
producers, compassion clubs and dispensaries already selling cannabis?
Will the expertise of medical cannabis professionals and illegal
cultivators be recognized? Will there be an exoneration of criminal
records for all the Canadians who have been charged with nonviolent
cannabis offences to this point?

Yes, we can take heart that the move toward legalizing cannabis
signals a softening of historic stubbornness against drug reform.
Safer injection and overdose prevention sites, and efforts to
prescribe heroin-assisted treatment, indicate at least some erosion of
the damaging view that illegal drug users must be discriminated
against and punished.

But so much more needs to be done. Social problems such as crime and
poverty are routinely blamed on drugs, yet drug use is just one
factor. Inequality and harm grow from systemic racism, gender
violence, social and economic realities - and Canada's drug policies.

We can do better. We must.

- -------------------------------------------------------------------

Susan Boyd is a professor at the University of Victoria and author of 
the newly released book Busted: An Illustrated History of Drug 
Prohibition in Canada. She was a member of the task force on cannabis 
legalization and regulation.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Matt