TO DECRIMINALIZE THE USE OF DRUGS, PART 3 OF A SERIES
It seems like a no-brainer. Invest a dollar in treating drug addiction, a persuasive letter-writer argued in Saturday's Globe and Mail, and $6 will be saved in other costs to society. Others have calculated the net gain to be greater still.
So why are we still arguing? Most of those who consume illegal drugs don't need medical help. For the minority who do, why not treat their problem as a health issue rather than a criminal one? Why not end the criminal prosecution of those who buy and take drugs -- of all kinds -- and concentrate on pursuing the merchants who supply those drugs?
Part of the reluctance to embrace that position is rooted in the view that drug-taking is not just dangerous but morally wrong. Is it? Plenty would say no, contending that if you wish to ingest a substance, including a substance that will do you harm, that's between you and yourself. Many cigarette smokers and alcohol drinkers would agree.
A better argument against decriminalizing drugs is that doing so would encourage their use. There is no dodging this one. The extent to which so-called soft drugs lead to the use of hard drugs -- the "gateway" argument -- remains highly debatable. But if it were possible for a person to purchase drugs, hard or soft, without fear of being arrested and charged ( that penalty would be reserved for the seller ), there seems small doubt that in the short term drug use might rise.
But by how much? Look to the Netherlands, where drugs of all types have been readily available for many years, and where arrests for small-scale possession are rare. In theory, that tolerance should have produced a nation of junkies. In practice, while Dutch cannabis consumption is slightly higher than in some other parts of Europe, heroin use is extremely low, particularly among young people. Why? Detailed, truthful drug education programs in schools offer one explanation. Perhaps, in this instance, familiarity really does breed a level of contempt.
Those programs reflect the entrenched philosophy of "harm reduction," increasingly visible not just in the Netherlands but elsewhere in Europe, most notably in Switzerland and parts of Germany. Harm reduction goes far beyond simply substituting medical treatment for a spell behind bars. It also acknowledges that drug addicts need housing, counselling, job training and much else, all of which cost money.
In Canada, too, the collective view on drugs seems to be slowly shifting. Health Minister Allan Rock garnered worldwide headlines earlier this month when he paid a visit to the federal government's unique marijuana-growing operation in Flin Flon, Man., which will supply marijuana to the terminally ill and others suffering from constant excruciating pain.
Other initiatives also offer the basis for a better drug strategy. Needle-exchange programs are in place in many Canadian cities, to the considerable benefit of some of the country's 50,000 to 100,000 drug injectors. So too, though less widely available, are methadone programs. Health Canada is pondering the creation of injection rooms for heroin addicts in Toronto and Vancouver, much along the lines of several successful European programs.
Such tolerance meets with stiff resistance. Ontario Health Minister Tony Clement, for one, has voiced dismay at the heroin program, saying such a move may promote drug use. In Vancouver, a drug-diversion court program similar to a Toronto prototype that began operating two years ago with federal funds has been in limbo for months. The special treatment centre to which hard-core drug users would be sent, in lieu of jail, has been unable to find a building. Not in our back yard, many city residents have said.
So imagine the uproar if Ottawa decided to go further, much further, and announce that simple drug possession would henceforth no longer be a crime. Imagine if it announced that a network of new, publicly funded drug-treatment centres was to be set up, along with support services and compelling, relevant drug-prevention programs in schools. People would ask: What guarantees would that offer? And the answer would be: none. Data from every country in the world show that the long-term success rate in treating drug addicts is, at best, mixed.
So why bother? Because, we would argue, such a landscape would be a marked improvement on the status quo, which manages simultaneously to ( a ) eat up significant amounts of police and court resources, ( b ) brand all drug users as criminals and © discourage those with a drug problem from identifying themselves to authorities. In British Columbia, where at least 242 individuals succumbed to fatal overdoses last year, chief provincial health officer Perry Kendall points out one singularly regrettable result of drugs being illegal. When an overdose occurs in a drug house, there is a marked reluctance to call 911. To do so would draw police attention, so no cry for help goes out.
What is heard regularly is the call for better crime prevention. Since at least half of all crime is related to either drugs or alcohol, a major step toward reducing crime would be to focus on its causes rather than its symptoms, through radically stepped-up treatment programs.
In the short term, such a move would be expensive and politically difficult. In the long term, it might be the best investment we could make.