Pubdate: Wed, 22 Jul 2020
Source: National Post (Canada)
Copyright: 2020 Canwest Publishing Inc.


Listen to the police

Let's talk about decriminalizing all drugs

We're having a national conversation about policing and criminal
justice. Examining our drug laws is a natural extension of this debate

More than nine years ago, writing about the war on drugs, this
editorial board encouraged the government of then-prime minister
Stephen Harper to get bolder with decriminalizing cannabis.

"By any reasonably broad metric," we wrote then, the war on drugs "has
been an abysmal failure. According to estimates by the UN - by no
means a liberal organization when it comes to drug policy - worldwide
consumption of opiates rose 34.5 per cent from 1998 to 2008, cocaine
by 27 per cent, and cannabis by 8.5 per cent. In achieving that abject
failure, tens of thousands of people have been killed."

In the years since, the numbers have remained generally the same - the
UN reported just last month that between 2009 and 2018, the number of
people using drugs (including cannabis) had grown by another 30 per
cent. Still, some change has come. Four years after we wrote the words
above, the Trudeau government was elected, and it delivered an
important step - the legalization of cannabis.

The sky has not fallen. To the extent the world has ended, it's been
brought low by plague, not pot - indeed, as noted last week in this
space, the Ontario government reacted in part to the pandemic by
making it easier for Ontarians to order legal pot for home delivery.
Flatten the curve while getting high.

Canada's legalization of cannabis seems like a massive societal shift,
compared to where we were nine years ago, but the actual legalization
of marijuana was accomplished reasonably smoothly. It was almost an
anti-climax. With that in mind, it's now time to carefully and
responsibly consider another major shift: decriminalizing the
possession of small amounts of more, perhaps even all, drugs.

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) made headlines
recently when it recommended exactly that, specifically,
decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of illegal narcotics
for personal use. It is not the first time this idea has been brought
up in Canada, and it likely won't be the last (Bonnie Henry, B.C.'s
public health leader, recommended it just this week). But it's worth
considering - especially now.

Calls to decriminalize drugs had come from both public health experts
and politicians in recent years, before the pandemic hit. In 2018,
Toronto Public Health released a report calling on the city to lobby
the federal government to decriminalize drugs, which was also endorsed
by Montreal's health agency. It was also in the Green party's 2019
election platform (for whatever that's worth).

While these groups were largely ignored by the federal government, it
is noteworthy that the call to action from police comes from an
organization that actually represents the men and women charged with
running our law enforcement agencies.

"Arresting individuals for simple possession for illegal drugs is
ineffective and doesn't save lives," said the CACP's president, Chief
Const. Adam Palmer. "We recommend that enforcement for possession give
way to an integrated health-focused approach that requires
partnerships between police, health care and all levels of
government." Sound familiar?

We have been having a national conversation about whether some
situations should be handled by mental health experts, rather than
police, and about the racial inequities in our criminal justice
system. Examining our drug laws is a natural extension of this debate
because for far too long, we have treated drug abuse as a criminal
matter, rather than largely a public health issue. And there is little
doubt that the War on Drugs has disproportionately affected minorities.

While most Canadian police forces don't keep data on race, we know
that Aboriginal and Black people are over-represented in our prison
system. (A 2013 investigation by the ombudsman for federal offenders
found that Black people made up 9.5 per cent of the prison population,
despite accounting for less than three per cent of the total
population, while Indigenous people comprised 23 per cent of
prisoners, despite representing just over four per cent of Canada as a
whole.) There have also been numerous studies showing that drug laws,
particularly when cannabis was still criminalized, disproportionately
hurt Blacks and Aboriginals. This, indeed, was one of the arguments
cited by the Liberals as favouring legalization. They were right.

It is time this country took a hard look at our drug laws in order to
figure out what makes sense, and what doesn't. Legalizing marijuana
was a good first step in acknowledging that not all drugs are created
equal and that many of the drug-related problems we have in this
country stem from the organized criminals who sell them, not the
people who use them. But the conversation can't end there, because we
still have a system that spends far too many resources punishing those
who use drugs, rather than trying to help people with addiction issues
and focusing police resources on what really matters: keeping
organized crime out and the public safe. It's time for our government,
and Canadians generally, to have this conversation.

We are well aware of the devastating impact drugs can have on
individuals, on families and on communities. But it's equally clear
that responding with law enforcement and little else isn't making
these problems better - if anything, over-policing is making them
worse. We can do better than this. Or, to quote again from our
editorial nine years ago, "There can be no worse outcome than utter
failure." Indeed.
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