Conservative MP Bob Saroya’s recent declaration that Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith was “irresponsible” and “completely careless” for suggesting that Canada should pursue full-scale drug decriminalization has reinforced how toxic partisanship can be in the drug policy debate.

What is completely careless is to allow ignorance, apathy and prejudice to guide our thinking on drug policy.

Saroya also claimed decriminalization was a “dog whistle to the left,” even though the very idea of a “dog whistle” in the political sense is a term meant to exclude a subgroup of society, the very opposite of what Smith was suggesting.  If anything, Erskine-Smith’s declaration was a clarion call for common sense drug policy that would serve to reintegrate the marginalized, the stigmatized and the forgotten into society.

What is “completely careless” is to allow ignorance, apathy and prejudice to guide our thinking on drug policy, especially in the face of evidence that demonstrates the public health benefits of decriminalization. It’s “irresponsible” to insinuate that drugs aren’t now on the street, that the illegal market isn’t thriving, and that we should persist with a failed “lock ‘em up philosophy.”

Portugal decriminalized drug possession and use in 2001, when the country was confronted with the health, human and economic impacts of over 100,000 individuals – almost 1 percent of their population — with severe drug addictions, in a country of 10 million people.  In the 1980s, as cheap heroin from Afghanistan and Pakistan flooded Europe, physicians began to see a staggering rise in the number of individuals presenting with problematic drug use.  What began as a problem grew into a full-blown crisis, bringing with it unprecedented rates of HIV and Hepatitis C infections, fuelled by intravenous drug usage.

By the end of 2003, Portugal had the highest HIV incidence rates in Western Europe, over 23,000 people. Most of these people (49 percent) were injecting drug users, heterosexuals (33 percent) or members of the LGBTQ community (12 percent).  Consequently, the number of drug-related AIDS cases there continued to increase, while other countries, for example, France and Spain, saw decreases.  None of this is surprising when you consider that problematic drug use often happens in the shadows and in desperation and when there is no access to risk-mitigation strategies or treatment options.  The prevalence of disease further demonstrates that this epidemic was not confined to drug users themselves, it also affected members of their families and relationship networks. Intravenous drug users might have acquired the disease through the sharing of needles, but they also transferred it to their partners or their families.

As the criminalization of drug users and dealers was marginalizing those needing assistance, Portugal’s government adopted Law 30/2000, which decriminalized low-level possession and use of illicit drugs, enhanced treatment programs, and refocused its criminal justice system to target those trafficking and distributing drugs instead of users and addicted patients.

According to various studies and sources, since this sensible drug policy arrived in Portugal, drug-related HIV infections have dropped by 90 percent; overall illicit drug use has dropped by 20 percent among adults, and it has decreased by 16 percent among young adults since 2007; the percentage of drug-related offenders in prison dropped from 44 percent to 21 percent; overdose deaths dropped by 85 percent and the number of patients in drug treatment increased by 60 percent. A 2014 study found that the social costs of drugs had declined by 18 percent. These statistics demonstrate that decriminalization is not an invitation to use drugs, but rather an invitation to be part of society. The integration of all people in a civil society leads to better health outcomes, quality of life and safety, and yes, healthier behaviours.

Canada has much to learn from this, when you consider our country’s drug use trends.

Data collected in the 2012 Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey found that 10.2 percent of respondents used cannabis in the last year, 1.1 percent used cocaine or crack; 0.6 percent used ecstasy; and 1.1 percent used hallucinogens (LSD).  That’s a lot of people who could be handed a criminal convictions under our current law and order approach to drug policy.

According to Statistics Canada, in Canada in 2013, there were approximately 109,000 drug violations; the rate of drug-related offences was 310 per 100,000 population, up 13 percent from 2003.  Overall crime had dropped, yet drug-related crime has increased by 52 percent since 1991, and the annual federal cost of housing a prisoner was $115,310 in 2013-14 compared with $81,206 in 2002-03 – a 42 percent increase in just over a decade.  And, the average age of those accused of drug-related offences in Canada? 24 years (from the same Statistics Canada source as above).  Helluva time in your life to have a permanent criminal record to contend with.

In 2014 — according to the Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange — 19 percent of young people living with HIV may have acquired the virus through injection drug use, and 68 percent of injection users either had active hepatitis C or had a past infection.  The Canadian Public Health Association reported that, in 2008, 56.5 percent of drug-related deaths were the result of overdose, and this number has no doubt risen drastically recently given the very real fentanyl crisis happening right now in towns, cities and provinces nationwide.  We have all seen the stories in the news of families torn apart, lives cut short, and communities trying to manage the rampant rate of increase in overdose deaths.  Clearly, the status quo isn’t working.

The Auditor General of Canada has estimated the size of Canada’s illegal drug market at between $7 billion to $18 billion per year; the international market is estimated at $100 billion to $1 trillion.  We are literally allowing an illegal market to thrive, largely unabated, because we prefer an outdated and ineffective drug policy regime that checks the box of offending nobody, fingering the “bad guys” and creating 30-second sound bites on TV for politicians to use as a way to drum up votes.

Canada should decriminalize drugs, and it should enhance access to medically assisted and psychosocial forms of treatment for patients with addiction.  We must focus the full weight of the law on the producers and traffickers – those driving the trillion-dollar international market who care nothing for the people and families they hurt – while enhancing the public health system so that it gives addicted patients and their families hope, treatment and a chance at rebuilding their lives.

Evidence-based drug policy is far from being a “dog-whistle.”  Rather, most Canadians would likely welcome a debate over it, if it was free of hyperbole and tired ideology.   Some may be willing to continuing promoting the cost of a failed drug war, but Canada would be better served by policies that succeed in decreasing drug crimes, increasing treatment and reintegrating individuals into society who have been marginalized and stigmatized for far too long.

Photo: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews/Canadian Press

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Cameron Bishop
Cameron Bishop is director of government affairs at Tilray Inc., where he is responsible for Canadian government affairs activities across all levels of federal-provincial-territorial and municipal governments in the reform of cannabis laws and regulations.

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