The War on Drugs must end. Its fundamental objective has been stymied: suppression of the drug trade. To the contrary, many aspects of that trade have flourished. A worldwide illegal market, dominated by gangsters, abounds, with only sporadic and limited interference by national and international authorities.
The War has also imposed great social and human costs: massive imprisonment, tinged by racism; misuse of police and other resources that could have been better expended on other public safety issues; a thriving underworld market leaving a trail of violence, extortion, and other crimes; tainted substances without any enforceable standards of quality; untaxed revenues; and the endangering and exploitation of children, including those, in many societies, entrapped by rampaging lawlessness.
As we urge the move to legalization and regulation we also need to recognize that Canada has significant issues with drug consumption both in terms of those that are legal, at present, and those that will become regulated as we shift away from criminalization. Here are a few grim statistics based on global comparisons.
- Canada has one of the highest rates of per capita consumption of prescription opioids. And heroin, fentanyl from the streets, and other deadly fixes make our entanglements with these drugs alarming and, too often, lethal.
- Our kids have the highest rate of marijuana usage among developed societies.
- We have the highest rate of car accident fatalities associated with alcohol among wealthy countries.
- Our per capita consumption of alcohol is in the upper range for comparable societies .
- (A piece of good news: we have low rates of smoking for both adults and kids)
We should shift from criminalization of drugs to their legalization and regulation. But those advancing that position should be among the first to advocate a proactive stance to tackle the very real problems caused by harmful use of drugs. Responses should be focussed on addressing problems with substances as public health issues not criminal ones. They should also be based on the best evidence possible regarding how to respond and not be influenced by damaging stereotypes of those who use drugs. Emphasis should be placed on effective strategies for curbing harmful use. Penal sanctions should be reserved for specific instances such as the deadly matter of impaired driving (however caused).
Prohibition should end. But as it does we need to squarely face our substance problems. Not by hounding people with criminal sanctions. But with education, counselling, and, where needed, treatment. And by creating an effective regulatory scheme for the safe supply and sale of drugs.
Bill Bogart is a Toronto-based international expert on reducing the harm of risky behavior, society and Canadian law. He is the published author/editor of 7 books including Permit but Discourage: Regulating Excessive Consumption (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011,) Regulating Obesity? Government, Society, and Questions of Public Health (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.) A regular contributor to Huffington Post, Bill is often called on to comment on, and give background to current events regarding the regulation of consumption. His new book, Off the Street: Legalizing Drugs will be published in November. www.wabogart.com