Mandatory minimums won’t curtail illicit drugs

TheStar.com – Opinion – Harper’s plan to adopt futile U.S. strategy will create more criminals and do little to end violence
Published On Thu Apr 15 2010.   Evan Wood Director, Urban Health Program B.C. Centre For Excellence In HIV/AIDS

Illicit drugs represent one of the greatest threats to community health, and recent examples of drug-related violence across Canada show the toll continues to mount:

A double slaying in picturesque Old Montreal has the hallmarks of a professional hit. Winnipeg police warn of “imminent” violence after a crackdown on a Hells Angels puppet club creates a power vacuum that a rival outlaw motorcycle gang tries to fill. Police directly tie the increase in gang violence on the streets of Vancouver and other Canadian cities to the drug cartel wars terrorizing Mexico.

But even with the rising social costs related to illicit drugs, our response represents Canada’s leading example of ideology triumphing science. And events have recently taken a turn for the worse.

Prior to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives taking power, an exhaustive national consultative process led by Health Canada and the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse informed the development of Canada’s drug strategy. This inclusive process, which involved all federal political parties and virtually all stakeholder groups, aimed to remove the rhetoric and emotion that have traditionally guided Canada’s response to illicit drugs. Instead, it sought to incorporate the best available scientific evidence into the fight against the drug scourge.

The central aim of the strategy was “to ensure that Canadians can live in a society increasingly free of the harms associated with problematic substance use.” It differed from the U.S. approach in that it put emphasis on reducing harm rather than the less pragmatic goal of making society “drug free.”

However, when the Conservatives assumed power in 2006, the results of this exhaustive effort were thrown out and a new Tory “anti-drug strategy” was soon released. Although the pre-existing drug strategy had been criticized by a 2001 auditor general’s report, which demonstrated that 93 per cent of federal funding already went toward law enforcement, the Tories’ new anti-drug strategy increased the focus on law enforcement. This realigned Canada’s anti-drug efforts with the long-standing U.S. war on drugs. Documents obtained through freedom of information requests have demonstrated the close collaboration between Conservative cabinet ministers and senior bureaucrats from the George W. Bush White House in helping craft the Tories’ anti-drug plans.

Unfortunately, in addition to having been proven entirely ineffective at reducing drug supply, the American approach to dealing with drugs has resulted in a number of severe unintended consequences. Most importantly, the global drug war has created a massive illicit market, with an estimated annual value of $320 billion (U.S.). A closely related concern is the consistent association between drug prohibition and increased drug market violence. The Urban Health Research Initiative, of which I am co-director, recently released a study that clearly demonstrated that these astronomical profits drive organized crime and related violence.

In terms of additional harms, in the U.S., where the war on drugs has been fought most vigorously, the incarceration of illicit drug offenders has helped create the world’s highest incarceration rate. Primarily as a result of drug-law enforcement, one in eight African-American males in the age group 25 to 29 was incarcerated on any given day, despite the fact that ethnic minorities consume illicit drugs at comparable rates to other subpopulations. Although the U.S. is now moving away from mandatory minimum sentences, the mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug offences currently being proposed by the Harper government should help bring this incredible burden to Canadian taxpayers.

Why would we replicate this public policy disaster? Unfortunately, in addition to massive funding directed toward law enforcement and prisons, the war on drugs has also involved an enduring global education effort aimed at reinforcing public support for directing tax dollars toward police funding for dealing with drugs.

This helps makes enforcement strategies politically popular despite their proven ineffectiveness. A Canadian example is the law enforcement lobby group known as the Drug Prevention Network of Canada, which was founded by former Conservative MP Randy White and receives support from the Drug Free America Foundation. The propaganda the Harper government has used in its efforts to close the Vancouver supervised injecting facility was prepared by this group and freedom of information disclosures have shown it was actually funded by the RCMP.

The starting point for reducing drug-related harms while avoiding the enrichment of organized crime and creating associated gun violence is to accept that law enforcement will never meaningfully reduce the flow of drugs. Any economist will explain that the drug seizures we see over and over again as part of police photo-ops have the perverse effect of making it that much more profitable for someone else to sell drugs. The laws of supply and demand have simply overwhelmed police efforts. With youth now reporting easier access to illicit drugs than to alcohol or tobacco, the situation could not get much worse.

Once we accept that the war on drugs has failed to meaningfully reduce drug supply and has resulted in a range of destructive consequences, the next step is to consider the threat of each drug individually, rather than lumping drugs like cocaine and marijuana together, and to look toward international models that point the way forward.

In the Netherlands for instance, the de-facto regulation of marijuana and distribution through licensed coffee shops generates tax revenue for the country rather than profits for organized crime. Interestingly, rates of marijuana use in the Netherlands remain far lower than in the U.S. and Canada. Alternatively, Portugal decriminalized all drugs so that it could focus taxpayer resources on prevention and treatment. Five years into this experiment, Portugal has the lowest rates of marijuana use in the European Union.

A made-in-Canada solution is certainly needed. However, the Harper government’s proposals will only channel tax dollars from health and education into building prisons — a process that will have long-term impacts by turning petty drug offenders into hard-core criminals.

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