Rethinking our approach to drugs

Do you know why Canada criminalized marijuana in 1923? Nope? Nobody else either.

During the parliamentary debate, a member of parliament asked what the then unknown drug was, but was only told that it came from “India” and “there is no objection to its use”. Marijuana has nevertheless been added to the list of prohibited substances.

On the other hand, we know why Canada has criminalized opium and its derivatives. In 1907, amid a downturn in the labor market, the Asian Exclusion League held a rally in Vancouver, accusing Asian workers of stealing white jobs.

This caused a riot in Chinatown. A later government report noted that two then-legal opium dens were among the businesses seeking redress. Motivated by racist fears about the growing influence of Asia, the Minister of Labor introduced the first federal law on illicit drugs in Canada, the Opium Act of 1908.

The criminalization of marijuana and opium reveals that our drug laws often stem from abject ignorance and blatant racism, rather than an evidence-based approach to harm reduction.

Indeed, while a 2010 study in the British medical journal Lancet found alcohol to be the most harmful of all psychoactive substances, it remains legal. This has been a sensitive point with the countries of the South since the establishment of international anti-drug treaties in the 1960s.

Southern countries have complained bitterly that wealthy Northern countries jealously protect alcohol produced from wheat and potatoes grown in the North, while criminalizing marijuana and cocaine produced from cannabis plants and of coca grown in the South.

This unproven illicit drug “strategy” comes with huge costs that, by the way, are paid by all Canadians. According to the federal government, Canada spends $2 billion a year in justice-related costs and suffers an additional $5.3 billion in lost productivity due to criminal penalties.

And while study after study confirms that criminalization has no effect on rates of drug use, it has created a vast transnational network of organized crime. The dead of the global war on drugs now number in the hundreds of thousands, and no country, including Canada, has been spared.

A growing number of deaths are the result of the unregulated market, as illicit drugs are frequently contaminated with benzodiazepines and the powerful opioid fentanyl. Last year alone, more than 7,500 Canadians died from overdoses.

Given these sad statistics, it is heartening to see that the federal government’s expert task force last year recommended ending our century-old experiment with prohibition.

As a “fundamental priority,” the force recommended that Canada “develop and immediately implement a single public health framework with specific regulations for all psychoactive substances, including currently illegal drugs as well as alcohol, tobacco and cannabis”.

A year later, no comprehensive framework for all psychoactive substances has been put in place. Therefore, we continue to treat the most harmful drug – alcohol – and one of the deadliest substances – tobacco – in entirely different ways from the way we treat other mind-altering agents.

As we have seen, there are historical reasons for this disparate treatment. But there are no rational, evidence-based reasons for this. As long as we continue to resist the formulation of a drug policy based on medical and scientific data, we will not be able to implement a coherent drug strategy. And Canadians will continue to die.

With respect to the second part of the fundamental priority – regulating illegal drugs – the Minister of Health approved British Columbia’s request for exemption from drug possession laws, but beyond that, the federal government does not seem keen on regulation.

This will inevitably result in us spending more money on a war on drugs than we have already lost. And Canadians will continue to die.

The task force also included as an “urgent priority” a recommendation to increase the safe supply of illicit drugs. In the absence of a regulated market, providing users with safe, pharmaceutical-grade drugs is the only way to ensure product purity and truthful labeling.

To its credit, Ottawa funds a number of secure supply pilot programs across the country. But current programs are expensive to run and involve strict protocols and limited enrollment capacity.

Safe supply programs could be greatly expanded by focusing them on facilities with extensive drug experience, including pharmacies and consumption sites. And British Columbia’s MySafe program has had remarkable success dispensing prescriptions through secure, biometric-enabled vending machines.

As long as Ottawa drags its feet on regulations, it will have to try all of these measures and more. And as long as he drags his feet on the fundamental reform recommended by the task force, Canada’s drug problem will continue unabated. And Canadians will continue to die.

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