Following Legalization of Cannabis, Will Canada Decriminalize All Drugs?
Opioid overdoses have claimed the lives of nearly 6000 Canadians in the last two years, and amid concerns of a growing crisis, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh appealed to the Prime Minister to decriminalize all drugs, with the hope that turning drug addiction into a public health issue rather than a criminal issue will lead to better treatment options for drug addicts.
Decriminalization of cannabis has been a long-discussed issue, and although the new legalization framework does end prohibition of the drug, it also brings in a lot of new laws and stiff penalties for a variety of offences that weren’t explicitly covered under the previous framework. Although many Canadians would probably agree with decriminalizing cannabis, if only to save on the court costs associated with prosecuting it, hard drugs are a different beast altogether. Let’s look at the pros and cons of how drug decriminalization might look when it comes to all drugs.
Legalization vs Decriminalization Explained
The first thing to understand about decriminalization is that it’s not the same thing as legalization. In Portugal, which we’ll talk more about shortly, drugs are decriminalized but they are not legal. What that means is that the government can still arrest people for production or distribution, but that it is not a criminal offence to be in possession of a personal amount of a drug that is intended for one’s own use.
Still, under decriminalization, those caught with drugs can be handed a fine along with referral to a treatment program which could even be mandatory. This is seen as a favourable alternative to a prison sentence and jail time, especially in Canadian society where a criminal record can disqualify someone from applying for jobs and other forms of social participation.
The Curious Case of Portugal
Everyone interested in building a society with decriminalized drug use has read the case studies about Portugal, the first country to fully decriminalize the use of all drugs. In 2001, to combat a growing problem with HIV transmission and opioid addictions and overdoses throughout the country, Portugal took the major step of decriminalizing all drug use.
Portugal had a unique insight into the nature of drug addiction: most drug addicts don’t want to be addicts, and people that avoid drugs aren’t avoiding them because they’re illegal, they’re avoiding them because they’re harmful. In other words, legalizing heroin isn’t going to make loads of people decide to try heroin because it’s now legal, it’s going to give more people an avenue to get help for their addictions.
Here are just a few of the benefits that have been measured in Portugal since the drug policies were changed in 2001:
- Portugal has the lowest rate of marijuana usage in people over 15 anywhere in the European Union at around 10%. In the United States, 40% of people over 12 regularly smoke cannabis.
- Lifetime drug use declined dramatically when measured in seventh to ninth graders, with a reduction from 14.01% to 10.6% in the years since decriminalization.
- HIV infection rates among drug users fell 17%, thanks to safe injection sites provided by the government where drug addicts can get access to clean supplies and avoid sharing needles.
- Drug-related deaths were reduced by more than 50%.
Portugal has one of the lowest rates of drug overdose deaths in Europe, with just 3 people per million dying from drug overdose each year. In the UK, that number of 44.6 per million, and in Estonia it’s 126.8 million. Only Romania has fewer drug overdoses relative to its population than Portugal.
Why Some Canadians Don’t Support Decriminalization
The most common arguments against decriminalization of drugs in Canada have to do with preventing other crimes, reducing terrorism and maintaining the social order.
Data has shown that frequent drug use is one of the strongest indicators of a criminal career, and that serial drug users are more likely to engage in violent crimes and property crimes. Use of hard drugs like cocaine or heroin early in life is heavily tied to persistent criminal behaviour in adulthood, and arrested drug users are more likely to be rearrested in pretrial release or fail to appear for court dates. Drugs like cocaine can induce paranoia, and if drug use increases with legalization, so will many forms of violent crime, including assault, drugged driving, and domestic abuse.
Many opioids that Canadians consume come from overseas. Afghanistan is famous for its poppy fields and is a major international export of opium and its derivatives, including heroin. Wherever drugs are produced, the proceeds that it generates are used to fund nefarious activities like terrorism, corruption, and other types of crime. Therefore, if decriminalization makes it easier to get these drugs, we’re essentially helping the terrorists make more money.
There’s also the NIMBY principle; not in my back yard! Pe ople can acknowledge the benefits of having safe injection sites where addicts can get safe supplies, and social workers can administer anti-opiate drugs in case of an overdose, but nobody wants a safe injection site opening in their neighbourhood because they don’t want drug addicts walking around where they live.
What Is Canada Really Doing About Opioids?
While it’s suspected that Cannabis legalization will reduce opioid overdoses, the government is taking some extra steps to help reduce the number of overdoses. A new government strategy includes several measures, such as:
- Offering hydromorphone, a safer pharmaceutical alternative to illegal street drugs
- Allowing supervised consumption sites to offer drug checking services, so users can ensure that the street drugs they have are free of any harmful chemicals
- Establishing protocols to allow for temporary overdose prevention sites
The Last Word
In November 2017, when asked about his intentions toward sweeping drug decriminalization on the Global BC morning show, the Prime Minister said, We are not looking at decriminalization or legalization of any other drugs other than what we are doing with marijuana. While the Prime Minister seems to have his hands full with the new cannabis regulations, the NDP leader and others see the results in Portugal as evidence that Canada shouldn’t drag its feet on decriminalization.
We have the evidence, Singh pointed out. Why do we continue down a path that makes no sense