Will we ever stop tackling this problem at the margins?
I had another bread-and-butter Coroner's case a few weeks ago. Middle-aged man, living alone. He had a rocky relationship with his girlfriend - sometimes going days at a time without making contact - and was otherwise estranged from his family and children. His addiction had cost him his relatives, his job, and judging by his spartan apartment, much of his money and belongings as well. He was found dead on his couch, covered in vomit, having taken too much of his poison of choice.
He was well known to the police, as was his problematic addiction. But with inadequate available help, possible mental illness, and a sketchy employment history, what chance did he have? The drug is everywhere, a response to the public's seeming insatiable appetite for it. It leads to these sorts of deaths every single day, despite public health campaigns and strict laws around its use just about everywhere.
The drug that did him in? Alcohol.
Alcohol...the same drug that, pretty much everywhere, the government rakes in money hand over fist from. Whether government revenues from alcohol sales are enough to offset the policing, health care, economic productivity, and human costs of addiction, premature death, and violence caused by alcohol - and they aren't - is beside the point. The point is that, despite its devastating potential for harm, alcohol is endorsed and even promoted by government and quasi-governmental agencies. And why not? In moderation, it's perfectly enjoyable, even savored.
Everyone seems to accept that the regulated, commercial sale of alcohol is a less counterproductive way of dealing with an addictive, toxic drug that has destroyed families, communities, and innocent lives than prohibition.
Which begs the question of why we seem to think that, more than 100 years since it was first prohibited, opium and its derivatives (or for that matter, any now-illicit drug) still need to be dealt with as a criminal justice problem, admittedly with (inadequate) resources dedicated to treatment of its associated problems?
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Yes, people are dying in alarming numbers across Canada, overdosing on either prescription drugs - fentanyl is in vogue now, a decade ago it was Oxycontin - or street drugs contaminated with ultra-potent opioid derivatives. But no matter what they do, our intrepid law enforcement agencies can't seem to keep the stuff off the streets, or once they find success some new killer drug pops up to seize the throne.
Why do we still do this? Why do we make addicts into criminals, disregarding the public health risks of keeping drug use in the streets? Then magnify the problem by keeping them incarcerated, and condemn them to the dim prospects of life as an ex-convict? Is there a point at which we take even a superficial look at the history and consequences of a century-old drug policy that has failed to achieve...what was the point of drug prohibition in the first place, anyway?
Health risks? Public safety? To a degree, of course. But it's a hard argument to label street drugs a top societal scourge, considering the damage wrought by alcohol and tobacco.
No, Canadian attitudes on drugs have their origins in racism. To Americans, that's hardly news, as drugs were the pretext behind racist mass incarceration policies that persist to the present day. The racist underpinnings of Canada's drug policies, however, are somewhat clouded by the passage of time.
In Canada, opium was both legal and taxed in the 19th century, but largely limited to Asian immigrant communities. When the gold rush ended, employment prospects suffered in the general population, prompting the search for ready scapegoats. The deplorable Chinese head tax was one such policy borne of this era. After the 1907 riots opposing Japanese immigrants, the government dispatched future Prime Minister Mackenzie King - yes, the Right Honorable Mackenzie King that held seances to communicate with dead relatives and dogs - to determine the best policies moving forward to deal with the problem. The 1908 Opium Act was the result, criminalizing possession and manufacture of the widely used drug, and by extension the low-wage Chinese laborers that relied upon it. Other recreational-use drugs soon joined the list of illegal substances, including cannabis and cocaine.
As the decades have passed, illicit drugs have become less of an issue in Asian communities, and now plague the ranks of the poor and Aboriginal populations still facing the wounds of colonialism. Incarcerating indigenous Canadians in ever-increasing numbers has only made things worse, and almost certainly stripped Canada of its moral authority in promoting human rights.
So why not stop at decriminalization? Portugal stopped prosecuting for drug possession, and now sees negligible numbers of death by overdose. That's certainly a start, and a decent-enough stopgap until a prudent legalization plan is developed. While we're at it, expunging the criminal records of anyone convicted of simple possession should help salvage the prospects for more than a few past users. But decriminalization is a half-measure that makes little real sense. It leaves the entire drug economy outside the rule of law, and maintains the likelihood that addiction will continue to go hand-in-hand with property crimes and street-level violence.
Don't take my word for it. The same conclusions were arrived at by the LeDain Commission on drug use in Canada, that nevertheless did philosophical cartwheels to recommend upholding drug prohibition.
So let's stop clinging to ineffective, harmful policies that have failed to achieve anything but to harm minorities and the poor. Let's acknowledge the entire notion of prohibiting some recreational drugs while profiting from the sale of others is hypocritical, rests on flawed reasoning, and at heart is fruit borne of the poisonous tree of racism. Legalize drugs, regulate their sale, and direct the revenues towards properly-resourced treatment programs and rehabilitating the lives of former users. Let the truly wretched have their drugs for free, administered safely in supervised injection sites, with life-saving treatment and the option of help at hand.
It's the smart way forward for Canadian policymakers, and the right way forward for Canadian society.