A smarter War on Drugs
NationalPost.com – opinion
Jun. 3, 2011.
Canada received two urgent wake-up calls about its criminal justice system this week -one from Quebec, and the other from the international community. On Tuesday, Quebec Superior Court Justice James Brunton stayed proceedings against 31 people arrested two years ago on drug and gangsterism charges as part of Operation SharQc -a sweeping crackdown on the Hells Angels. He saw no way the accused could be tried before 2015. Canadians are, after all, entitled to a reasonably swift trial, and in the judge’s view, the system could not deliver.
That decision is being appealed. But even if Justice Brunton’s decision was in error, it’s shocking that a judge in a country like Canada should even have to consider a trial taking five or six years to complete. If the appeal is unsuccessful, heads must roll -not least Mr. Fournier’s -for this Third World disgrace. But even if the appeal is successful, it won’t change the fact that justice in Canada moves at an appallingly glacial pace.
Two days later, at a press conference in New York, the Global Commission on Drug Policy issued a starkly convincing, plainspoken report on the War on Drugs. Its most basic message: By any reasonably broad metric, that war 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% from 1998 to 2008, cocaine by 27%, and cannabis by 8.5%. In achieving that abject failure, tens of thousands of people have been killed -not just cruel gang kingpins and their wretched foot soldiers, but the innocent men, women and children trying to eke out an honest existence in the crossfire. Untold billions of scarce policing and security dollars have been spent. The current approach is simply untenable.
This report does not come from an ivory tower. Its signatories include former presidents of Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and Switzerland, the sitting Prime Minister of Greece and a former U.S. secretary of state under Ronald Reagan. It is testament to a huge, epochal shift in opinion among intelligent people that the War on Drugs must be comprehensively rethought -particularly with respect to laws on cannabis, which the Global Commission is especially intent be liberalized. We have long been in favour of decriminalizing marijuana, and remain so.
Canada’s experience with drug violence is incomparable to, say, Mexico’s. But the story of Quebec’s Hells Angels and their gangland rivals is part of the larger picture. “We … need to recognize that it is the illicit nature of the market that creates much of the market-related violence,” the Global Commission report argues. “[L]egal and regulated commodity markets, while not without problems, do not provide the same opportunities for organized crime to make vast profits.”
Among the War on Drugs’ unintended consequences, as the report says, are both a “huge criminal black market … financed by the risk-escalated profits of supplying … demand for illicit drugs” and “extensive policy displacement, the result of using scarce resources to fund a vast law-enforcement effort intended to address this criminal market.”
The only thing worse than prosecuting the War on Drugs as currently designed is prosecuting it with insufficient resources to even put the soldiers of the other side on trial. Canadians might well balk at a debate over decriminalizing hard drugs. But to the significant extent that the Angels and their rivals fought to control the cannabis market in Quebec, years of bloody street violence was expertly facilitated by the state.
The entire situation could have been cancelled out by liberating the cannabis market, which has only grown under decades of prohibition, from the criminal class. The resources thereby liberated could have been redirected, for example, towards the slothful justice system that’s threatening to let 31 druggang members go free.
And yet, shockingly, a Conservative Canadian government, which purports to understand capitalism, proposes to re-introduce legislation that would impose mandatory minimum sentences for small-scale marijuana growers. This ridiculous policy seems designed to keep the trade in the hands of criminal lowlifes, who police can then pursue and hopefully catch and prosecute -if there’s room in a courtroom and a judge is free some time in the next seven years, that is.
If liberalizing cannabis laws is too bold a first step for Canada, despite its acceptance in several American jurisdictions, then we need to at least break the political “taboo,” as the Global Commission puts it, on discussing alternative approaches. Liberalizing experiments in other countries are promising. But in any event, there can be no worse outcome than utter failure.
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