In February, I represented Canada at a United Nations parliamentary hearing in New York on the global response to the world’s drug problem. It was a timely topic leading into a further UN hearing this month, at which global drug conventions will be debated, and hopefully revisited.
I participated in a debate alongside Senator Laura Rojas from Mexico, arguing that states should seek alternatives to incarceration for drug possession. Specifically, I spoke to the Canadian experience and our government’s promise of evidence-based decision-making in this policy area.
A focus on evidence is critical because, in the debate surrounding illicit drugs, the evidence is often at odds with our intuition. After all, there’s a certain logic to the idea that banning a substance – and threatening prison – will prevent the use of that substance.
Yet the evidence shows us that prohibition of drugs has caused more harm than it proposes to solve. This message was delivered to the United Nations in 1998 by more than 500 esteemed signatories, and interestingly, this same message is now delivered by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Prohibition prevents victims of drug use from seeking medical help, exacerbating issues of disease transmission and addiction.
It is costly, displacing resources better spent on education, poverty reduction, and health.
It creates the conditions for organized crime to profit, and the underground market alone is the cause of more deaths than drug use or abuse, through overdoses and gang violence.
And in many cases – especially in the case of marijuana – it imposes criminal records on otherwise responsible adults and law-abiding Canadians.
A regulatory environment based on public health is the path forward. And in keeping with our election promises, one of the first steps on that path is the regulation of marijuana. It is a policy endorsed by a range of legal academics, drug policy experts, and organizations, including the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
Over the coming months, a federal/provincial task force will develop rules for the production and sale of marijuana, for personal growing limits, for limiting access to youth, for smoking in public spaces, for penalties and tests related to driving while impaired, and for limits on commercial advertising. Luckily, we can learn from the different approaches of others, from Oregon to Washington, from Colorado to Uruguay.
It will not be an overnight process, but we do need to move quickly. The continued arrests for low-level marijuana possession are as unjust as they are a waste of police and court resources.
For my part, I have called on my government to either decriminalize marijuana in the interim, or issue a directive to crown counsel to end all such prosecutions as a matter of public policy. We’ll also want to look at suspending all previous convictions for simple possession, at the very least.
With respect to other drugs, a more cautious approach is warranted, but the same problems of prohibition apply. The answer, in keeping with the evidence, is harm reduction. As the Supreme Court of Canada said about Vancouver’s safe injection clinic: “Insite saves lives. Its benefits have been proven.”
Proven benefits are the hallmark of good policy-making. However one views drug use, the evidence directs us away from prohibition and incarceration, and towards education and regulation grounded in a public health approach. As responsible legislators, we have a duty to follow that evidence.