Should Canada decriminalize drugs?

Katya Korol and Dr. Sarah Fraser

The War on Drugs

Since President Nixon declared this war nearly half a century ago, the general global response to drug use has been focussed on enforcement. Zero tolerance. Since the Nixon years, drug-related incarceration has been on the rise. But has this approach actually worked to stop people from using drugs?  The short answer is no. In fact, substance use problems are worsening in Canada. Between 2011 and 2016, the number of people in British Columbia who died from a drug overdose doubled. Despite this, Canada’s recent governments and their drug policies remain relatively unquestioned and stagnant.

It is well known that addiction is a health issue, yet it continues to be treated like a crime. The War on Drugs is an outdated approach and the Government of Canada must quickly move to decriminalize personal drug use. In fact, it is a matter of life and death. 

Where did the War on Drugs come from?

Many of us grew up repeatedly hearing “don’t do drugs.” The idea that drugs are bad, and that drug policies exist to protect us from chemical danger, is perhaps an intuitive one. Science may have played a role in shaping enforcement policies, but moral values and public perceptions that drug use is related to a lower social class also influenced our understandings and policies around drugs. Today we know that enforcement-based policies are not based on science. 

Portugal and decriminalization of drugs 

In Portugal, the punitive, zero-tolerance approach for addressing addiction was not working. Portuguese policymakers looked for another answer. They consulted with academics and medical professionals about the country’s drug problem, who suggested that the government opt for a less stigmatized approach to addiction treatment. So Portugal passed a law making drug use and possession (up to a ten days supply) an administrative offense, rather than a criminal one. Effectively, the Portugese government decriminalized all drug use and possession, including drugs such as heroin and cocaine. To be clear, trafficking and selling drugs are still considered to be crimes. Using drugs is instead punishable by fines or community service, rather than jail time. 

Despite political pressures to join the international War on Drugs, Portugal did not. They were the first country to decriminalize all drugs.2 It was a highly controversial policy at the time, but after decriminalizing all personal drug use, there was a decline in addiction, HIV, and drug related mortality rates, as well as a relative decline in drug use itself.1 In other words, by using a polar opposite technique to address substance use problems, Portugal reduced drug use rates, as well as the associated harms and burdens. 

Did people in Portugal start using more drugs?  

Yes and no. In some age groups, drug use went down. This includes the age group of 13-18 year-olds. This decrease is particularly important because drug use often begins in the teenage years, when the brain is highly vulnerable.2

On the other hand, small increases in substance use were observed in some adults (including 19-24 year olds). Although overall drug use in some age groups increased, this can mostly be accounted for by the increase in hashish use (a drug derived from the cannabis plant), while use of other substances barely increased. This is important because cannabis is considered much less harmful to self and society than intravenous drugs like heroin, or even alcohol.  

Does decriminalization work?

Harms that go along with drug use have been significantly reduced in Portugal. Particularly, HIV and AIDS cases among IV drug users decreased after decriminalization. Before decriminalization, 50% of HIV cases were related to drug use, whereas seven years after, only 20% of HIV cases were related to drug use.1,4 There were fewer overdoses, and crime rates also went down. Portugal, like most countries, has a public prison system. The lower incarceration rates are saving the system money, allowing for the reallocation of these resources.5

Though Portugal was the first country to tread these unchartered waters, other countries have seen the benefit of this harm reduction approach. Switzerland has changed their laws so that possessing small amounts of drugs for personal or shared use was no longer a crime. Instead of focussing on the ‘user,’ they instead focus on targeting the large-scale traffickers. They’ve connected with financial experts to detect abnormal money laundering from the drug trade. Drugs have also been decriminalized in Norway, and cases have been moved from the Justice Sector to the Health Sector. 

Should Canada decriminalize drugs? 

Canada’s punitive approach to illicit drug use isn’t working. According to a 2017 report by Health Canada, drug use rates are on the rise and so are drug-related harms. In 2018, more than 6,300 youth were arrested in Canada or had interactions with police for drug possession.  An average of ten people died every day in Canada from an illegal drug overdose between 2016 and 2018. 

We also know that the burden of substance use problems is unequally distributed in Canada due to ongoing systemic racism. Many Indigenous communities experience higher rates of opioid use and associated harms. Given these disheartening facts, it is crucial that we rethink our current approach to addiction and substance use in Canada. Addressing addiction is a complex endeavor that should best support people suffering from substance use problems and society as a whole. Portugal’s decriminalization policies seem to do this pretty well. 

Do you think drugs for personal use should be decriminalized in Canada? Scroll down to let us know what you think in the comments below! 

References 

  1. Whitelaw, M. (2017). A path to peace in the US drug war: why California should implement the Portuguese model for drug decriminalization. Loy. LA Int’l & Comp. L. Rev., 40, 81.
  2. Greenwald, G. (2009). Drug decriminalization in Portugal: lessons for creating fair and successful drug policies. Retrieved from: http://www.akzept.org/pdf/volltexte_pdf/4_10/greenwald_whitepaper.pdf 
  3. Hughes, C. Stevens, A. (2010). What Can We Learn From The Portuguese Decriminalization of Illicit Drugs?, The British Journal of Criminology, Volume 50, Issue 6, Pages 999–1022, https://doi.org/10.1093/bjc/azq038
  4. Session, A. S. (2017). The war on drugs is incompatible with the fight against HIV. Lancet, 4, e303-10. Retrieved from: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanhiv/article/PIIS2352-3018(19)30112-2/fulltext 
  5. Hughes, C. E., & Stevens, A. (2007). The effects of decriminalization of drug use in Portugal. Retrieved from https://kar.kent.ac.uk/id/eprint/13325 

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2 comments

  • Spencer Lucas says:

    This is long overdue. What do you think the biggest obstacle to change is?

    • Sarah Fraser says:

      Agreed. I think part of it is lack of knowledge. Lack of understanding of science. The stigma associated with addiction is another big obstacle. Leads to social and political resistance.

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