At the end of last year the British government Home Office released an in-depth study “Drugs: International Comparators ”comparing the drug laws in 11 different countries ranging from Portugal where small amounts of any drugs are legal, to Japan which has a zero tolerance position on possession of even the smallest amount of drugs. The purpose of this study was to not only take a realistic look at their own drug laws but to determine whether there was a direct link to being “tough on drugs” and actually tackling the drug problem.
This issue is of particular importance in Canada as the Harper government over the last six years has continued to take a hardline position on drug possession. Unlike the United States where during the same time period many states have loosened or even legalized possession of some drugs. Here in Canada, the Harper Conservatives have actually increased the penalties for possession and created mandatory minimum penalties for many drugs including six months in jail for possessing only six marijuana plants. The Conservatives have taken the position that being “hard on drugs” will solve our perceived drug problem and believe that throwing people in jail the answer to this issue.
Sadly, this rhetoric is not backed in reality. It does serve the Conservatives purpose of attracting votes but it does not help society deal with this issue. The results of this British study showed that there was no direct link between being tough on drugs and tackling the drug problem. The study found “we did not in our fact-finding observe any obvious relationship between the toughness of the country's enforcement against drug possession and levels of drug use in that country”. In fact, drug use in Sweden which has one of the toughest approaches, has relatively the same level of drug use as other countries with much more liberal drug policies. Portugal for instance decriminalized the possession of most drugs in 2004. At the time there was a great outcry that this would lead to rampant drug use in their country. Studies have now shown however that despite drugs being decriminalized, drug use has now fallen below the pre-2004 level when it was it actually illegal. More importantly in Portugal there has been a significant reduction in HIV and other drug related illnesses, along with a noticeable decrease in organized and property crime.
The report further found harm reduction initiatives including drug injection sites (which the Harper Government has actively opposed), needle exchange programs, and the prescription of heroin under medical supervision all produced positive results unlike the enforcement approach which this study showed did not produce better health outcomes.
The reality is that dealing with the drug problem by declaring a war on it and locking up drug users simply doesn't work. It destroys communities, it destroys families, it costs the taxpayer's huge amounts of money in policing, prosecuting and prison costs and it just doesn't work. To solve this problem Canada needs to look to Portugal and other countries which have recognized that the way to solve health problems is not to use police but to use doctors. In the US, both Colorado and Oregon have now legalized marijuana for personal use. Although that experiment is still in its early stages what both states have discovered so far, is that it has led to an increase in tax dollars taken in and caused no significant crime problems as the naysayers have predicted. In other words the effect has been exactly what the British study would have predicted.
What Canada needs is a drug policy based on reality/science not rhetoric that is health-based not enforcement based. Sadly until the conservatives no longer control this issue that is very unlikely to happen.