TO DECRIMINALIZE THE USE OF DRUGS, PART 1 OF A SERIES
Drive slowly along Vancouver's East Hastings Street or any other drug-soaked neighbourhood, and the misery visible on every corner offers a reminder of why we have drug laws. At the same time, the smorgasbord of heroin, cocaine, pills and marijuana being sold on those mean corners, for a fraction of what they cost 20 years ago, underlines the inescapable fact that those laws have never worked, and probably never will. A different law, supply and demand, has proved too strong.
Yet still the drug laws are enforced, albeit unevenly. Even as Canada's overall crime rate fell again last year ( the ninth consecutive such decline ), the number of drug charges jumped by 9 per cent to record levels. Coast to coast, police laid almost 88,000 charges, just over half involving simple cannabis possession. Among those charged with possessing drugs of all types, an estimated 13 per cent each year are jailed.
Why so many arrests? It is not because police are all in hot pursuit of casual, small-scale drug users, who in most communities have long ceased to be of much interest to the local drug squad. Rather, the numbers reflect the fact that drugs in general, and cannabis in particular, are more readily available than ever before and have an assured market.
Do the current criminal sanctions hold out any solution? The battle lines in this decades-old debate have lately been redrawn. On the one hand remain the shrinking number of drug warriors ( led, as always, by the United States ) who perceive drug-taking as destructive and morally wrong, an insidious enemy to be resisted at almost any cost. On the other are an ever-growing number of critics, most recently Britain's influential magazine The Economist, who maintain that since the war against drugs was lost many years ago, its huge fiscal and social price tag outweighs all possible benefit.
Scrap this futile campaign, The Economist and others say. Disregard the moral issue, and legalize drugs within a regulatory framework that would not only make drug-taking safer but save countless billions in law-enforcement costs, while depriving organized crime of its most lucrative source of profit. Drug sales, moreover, could be taxed. With 1.5 million marijuana users in Canada ( by Canadian Medical Association estimate ), think of the revenues.
Both schools of thought, we will argue over the next few days, are deeply flawed. But perhaps between them they hold an answer and perhaps it is this: Decriminalize all -- yes, all -- personal drug use, henceforth to be regarded primarily as a health issue rather than as a crime, while simultaneously stepping up pressure on the importers, manufacturers and large-scale dealers.
The resulting difficulties would be considerable, the chief one being the troublesome question of causality. If it were no longer a criminal offence to consume or buy drugs, but rather a simple misdemeanour, would that not encourage wider abuse? It might, at least in the short term. But the net gain would be greater.
Outright legalization would be better still, its proponents contend, but they are mistaken. Their core argument rests with the 19th-century thinker John Stuart Mill, who in his famous essay On Liberty asserted that the state should take no role in regulating citizens' behaviour unless it harms others. "Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign," Mill wrote. In other words, a person should be free to smoke pot, inject heroin, jump off buildings or indulge in any other risky behaviour, provided no larger damage occurs.
Fine. But what of, say, the dealer who supplies cocaine -- legally or otherwise -- to a customer whose life is subsequently wrecked? By what stretch can it be argued that no harm is being inflicted?
Second, legalizing drugs would send the message that they are somehow risk-free. For some recreational aficionados who lead productive lives, perhaps those risks are indeed small. But what of the unskilled, poorly educated teenage dropout who stares into the future and sees nothing? If drugs were to be legalized and sold from licensed outlets, the quality would improve and the price would plummet. All the more reason to experiment. All the more likelihood of coming to grief.
Third, state-sanctioned drugs would open the door to the use of all drugs, including new ones not yet brought to market, whose impact can only be guessed at.
Above all, the legalize-drugs argument fails because it is wildly unrealistic. More than 30 years have passed since Canada's LeDain commission concluded that marijuana should be decriminalized, yet tens of thousands of pot-smokers are still arrested each year. Legalization would be more contentious still. Not only is Canada a signatory to several United Nations conventions specifically barring the legalization of drugs, but if this country did take such a step, the howl of rage from the United States would generate lasting cross-border difficulties.
Decriminalizing all personal drug use -- formally exempting users from prosecution through amendments to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act while continuing to outlaw sales -- would also would stir serious U.S. concern. But the anger would be far more muted. And if the benefits of decriminalization were to become clearer, which down the road they might, the concern might steadily fade into quiet envy.
Tomorrow: drugs and the police.