Article by Luke Schulz, Kitchener Today
Wrapped up in the excitement of the United States Presidential Election, voters in Oregon made the decision to become the first U.S. state to decriminalize the possession and use of small amounts of street drugs, such as cocaine, heroin and LSD.
Under Measure 110, the drugs aren’t considered legal – though possession or use has been reduced to a non-criminal offence and a maximum fine of $100. As part of the measure, the state will also establish an addiction and treatment program funded partially through taxes from legal cannabis sales.
Andrew Hathaway is a professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Guelph, researching drug policy in Canada and around the world. Speaking as a guest on Kitchener Today with Brian Bourke, Hathaway said the decision can not only work, it makes a lot of sense – and we’re likely to see some reverberations from the ground-breaking move here in Canada.
“It’s been shown to work in Portugal, for example – in Western Europe, they adopted a decriminalization measure some years ago…” said Hathaway. “… with a lot of the same intentions; to get people out of the criminal justice system, get them the help they need, and in many cases put them in contact with treatment and public health services… that sort of thing…”
Hathaway said the idea of street drug decriminalization is something that may have been previously thought “unthinkable” in North America, though recent changes in policy such as the legalization of cannabis have opened the door for more progressive, non-punitive alternatives to addressing drug-related societal issues.
“There’s been recognition that sometimes arresting and imprisoning… trying to imprison our way out of the problem has not been particularly successful,” said Hathaway. “Clearly, there’s room for more progressive solutions – some of which might indeed involve adopting a more public health approach.”
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hathaway said that the challenges presented may have provided the context for Canadians to the sort of progressive solution discussions that found less support beforehand. Pointing to the example of a basic income, the Guelph professor said that it’s no longer unthinkable to consider that a basic income could be the solution to problems of stable employment.
As Canadians begin to further understand the role of Public Health, Hathaway said that their role in addressing drug-related issues has become more visible. Factoring in the defund the police argument, Hathaway said that addressing social justice issues may be “less threatening” when speaking to diverting funding to social programs that treat addiction rather than punitive measures.
With regards to his research in Canadian drug policy, Hathaway said that conversations around drug decriminalization in the country seem to have more of a focus on the public health emphasis rather than those of social justice – in terms of how the war on drugs has disproportionately affected people of colour, Indigenous people and disadvantaged communities. Hathaway said there may, perhaps, be more effective arguments for reform in including language that addresses both aspects of the issue.
“Clearly, the fact that these substances are being widely accessed in an unregulated climate only makes the problem worse…” said Hathaway. “This is a clear indication that the war on drugs has been lost; when we’re losing lives unnecessarily because of the overemphasis on enforcement and that kind of prohibitionist, punitive approach.”
Hathaway noted that there’s even an argument to be made to more fiscally conservative Canadians, in that there could potentially be money to be saved by decriminalization – leading to a de-investing in enforcement and policing drug-related crimes. He does admit, however, that there are some issues that arise from the movement for decriminalization rather than legalization.