Pivot Legal Society - Equality Lifts Everyone


The War on Drugs turns 40

Two days ago, my 15 year-old son sat down at the dinner table and said: “Guess what, drug cartels in Mexico are having gladiatorial fights to the death and turning the winners into hitmen.” His sisters doubted his story, but when CNN’s blog confirm it, they posed the only reasonable question: “why?” 

This week marks the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon's declaration of America’s War on Drugs. After all this time, the war hasn't achieved the goal of stamping out, or even reducing, the production or consumption of narcotics. Over the past ten years, the global consumption of opiates has increased 34.5 percent, cocaine 27 percent and cannabis 8.5 percent.  The war on drugs has meant that drug production and drug trafficking are fairly high risk activity, but the inflated rates of profit that have resulted from criminalization have meant that many are willing to take the risk and go to extreme measures to protect their interests.

To mark the War on Drug’s anniversary, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which includes former presidents or prime ministers of five countries and a former secretary general of the United Nations, has released a report on how to bring more effective control over the illicit drug trade. The commission’s primary recommendation: substitute treatment for imprisonment for people who use drugs but do no harm to others and concentrate on more coordinated international efforts on combating violent criminal organizations rather than nonviolent, low-level offenders

In this context, I think the important question to consider is not why brutal, anachronistic practices like gladiatorial fights are springing up in areas controlled by drug cartels, but rather why, at this very moment, is Canada preparing to implement an approach to drug policy that has lead to such horrific outcomes in other jurisdictions.  

Canadian drug policy has certainly been influenced by the US over the past 40 years, but we have escaped some of the worst impacts of the War on Drugs. All of that may yet change. During the recent federal election Stephen Harper pledged that in his first 100 days as head of a majority government, he will introduce a sweeping“omnibus” crime bill that will bundle all of the Conservative’s previous anti-crime initiatives into a single piece of legislation that echoes 40 years of American policy.  Much of this legislation will have serious negative impacts on people living with addictions and the communities in which they live.   

The Conservative Government has already implemented a National Anti-Drug Strategy that is heavily weighted toward criminal justice responses and has completely eliminated harm reduction as a key pillar. They have fought for several years for the closure of InSite, despite overwhelming evidence that it saves lives, curtails the spread of infectious diseases, promotes access to drug treatment and other healthcare services and contributes to reducing street disorder.

The Harper government intends to introduce legislation that will bring in mandatory minimum sentences for drug -related crimes.  A large body of evidence from the United States demonstrates that this approach to sentencing is correlated with skyrocketing rates of imprisonment of the most vulnerable, has no effect on reducing drug use or reducing crime and diverts scarce public funds from health and education programs. The HIV prevalence rate in Canadian prisons is at least 10 times that found in the population as a whole and growing because of the lack of harm reduction and treatment measures in Canadian prisons. The crime bill with further marginalize drug users in prison.

If our goal is to end the violence, disease and human suffering that drug use can inflict upon individuals and communities, 40 years of data from the US and around the world shows that policy centered on aggressive law enforcement is not the answer. Canada needs to look to best practice and scientific evidence for its drug policy. Addiction is a health issue and not a crime and people living with addictions need access to high quality health services, not prison cells.