Article by Sudbury Star
More than nine years ago, writing about the war on drugs, this editorial board encouraged the government of then-prime minister Stephen Harper to get bolder with decriminalizing cannabis.
“By any reasonably broad metric,” we wrote then, the war on drugs “has been an abysmal failure. According to estimates by the UN — by no means a liberal organization when it comes to drug policy — worldwide consumption of opiates rose 34.5 per cent from 1998 to 2008, cocaine by 27 per cent, and cannabis by 8.5 per cent. In achieving that abject failure, tens of thousands of people have been killed.”
In the years since, the numbers have remained generally the same — the UN reported just last month that between 2009 and 2018, the number of people using drugs (including cannabis) had grown by another 30 per cent. Still, some change has come. Four years after we wrote the words above, the Trudeau government was elected, and it delivered an important step — the legalization of cannabis.
The sky has not fallen. To the extent the world has ended, it’s been brought low by plague, not pot — indeed, as noted last week in this space, the Ontario government reacted in part to the pandemic by making it easier for Ontarians to order legal pot for home delivery. Flatten the curve while getting high.
Canada’s legalization of cannabis seems like a massive societal shift, compared to where we were nine years ago, but the actual legalization of marijuana was accomplished reasonably smoothly. It was almost an anti-climax. With that in mind, it’s now time to carefully and responsibly consider another major shift: decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of more, perhaps even all, drugs.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) made headlines recently when it recommended exactly that, specifically, decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of illegal narcotics for personal use. It is not the first time this idea has been brought up in Canada, and it likely won’t be the last (Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s public health leader, recommended it just this week). But it’s worth considering — especially now.
Calls to decriminalize drugs had come from both public health experts and politicians in recent years, before the pandemic hit. In 2018, Toronto Public Health released a report calling on the city to lobby the federal government to decriminalize drugs, which was also endorsed by Montreal’s health agency. It was also in the Green party’s 2019 election platform (for whatever that’s worth).
While these groups were largely ignored by the federal government, it is noteworthy that the call to action from police comes from an organization that actually represents the men and women charged with running our law enforcement agencies.
“Arresting individuals for simple possession for illegal drugs is ineffective and doesn’t save lives,” said the CACP’s president, Chief Const. Adam Palmer. “We recommend that enforcement for possession give way to an integrated health-focused approach that requires partnerships between police, health care and all levels of government.” Sound familiar?
We have been having a national conversation about whether some situations should be handled by mental health experts, rather than police, and about the racial inequities in our criminal justice system. Examining our drug laws is a natural extension of this debate because for far too long, we have treated drug abuse as a criminal matter, rather than largely a public health issue. And there is little doubt that the War on Drugs has disproportionately affected minorities.