Our national effort to eradicate illicit drug use has proven itself to be an expensive failure. Drug addiction has never been a significant problem in Canada but we continue to expend enormous financial and social resources in prosecuting users and creating a market for suppliers — all to no avail.
The criminalization of drugs was spearheaded by Mackenzie King in 1908. While on a trip to Vancouver following the “Anti-Oriental Riots” of 1907, he came into contact with several members of the fairer sex under the influence of opium. The purpose of his Opium Act was to protect these vulnerable white Christian women from falling under the control of Chinese gangsters. The uncontrolled sale of opiates had never been a problem in Canada, but moral outrage, fueled by racism, led to its criminalization and gave the government an excuse to halt Asian immigration. It also facilitated the creation of a black market.
In 1923, Canada added marijuana to the schedule of proscribed drugs. Its inclusion, however, is a historical mystery. Rampant marijuana usage was not a social problem, and the Department of Health did not consider it a public threat. Nor is there any record of debate concerning the bill in either the House or Senate. Most likely it was simply added by the Minister or a bureaucrat as an acknowledgment to the demands of the growing temperance movement.
The laws concerning drug use became stricter in the 1960s and 70s as older citizens sought to exert control over the rebelliousness of the hippy generation. Politicians were fearful that an entire generation would turn into unproductive potheads. President Ronald Reagan ratcheted up penalties again in the early 1980s as a way to secure votes from the Religious Right.
With each increase in criminalization there was a corresponding increase in crime and incarceration and no reduction in usage.
The crime and destitution that we have come to associate with the drug trade and usage is entirely of our own making. By criminalizing addiction, we have created a situation of low supply and high demand. We have incentivized anti-social behavior as suppliers attempt to meet the needs of dependent users.
The promise of Trudeau’s Liberal government to legalize and regulate marijuana is a step in the right direction. It follows the recommendation of numerous committees starting with the Le Dain Commission of 1969-72. Addicts will no longer be incarcerated for simple possession, thereby saving millions in court and prison costs. Production of marijuana will be regulated in a manner similar to alcohol and tobacco, adding millions of tax dollars to the public treasury.
As a nation, however, we can go a step further. We can legalize and regulate opiates and other hard drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy for the same reasons. Our resources can then be directed at treatment of those who wish to get clean.
At the very least we can follow the Portuguese example of the decriminalization of small amounts of hard drugs — that is, we can remove such drug offenses from criminal court. Since its implementation in 2001, the number of addicts in Portugal has declined, as has the number of deaths, disease and crime that stemmed from drug use.
The criminalization of drugs is an over-reaction to a non-existent threat. It is a misplaced moral crusade that punishes those that need help. The empirical evidence, the only sort that should matter when making decisions of public policy, clearly shows that decriminalization and/or legalization will be of benefit to all Canadians. Government should act on this as quickly as possible.