Drug prohibition causes more harm than drug abuse itself
Tens of thousands of Candians have died and even more remain at the mercy of a hypocritical government that frames all drug dependence as an illness — a government that spends billions punishing its sick and vulnerable in a racially biased criminal justice system. It’s time to abandon regressive drug laws and implement an approach that prioritizes public health and moves drug users towards services.
Nothing has fueled the overdose crisis and issue of mass incarceration the way Canada’s backing of the U.S.-led war on drugs has. As the Canadian government follows the lead of the United States’ punitive, destructive and ineffective policies, drug prohibition continues to cause more harm than drug abuse itself.
The opioid-driven overdose crisis
Canada’s overdose crisis is driven by the opioid epidemic. In fact, Canada has one of the world’s highest rates of drug-related death. More than 12,800 opioid-related deaths were recorded between January 2016 and March 2019.
Prohibitionist drug laws accommodate the black market distribution of adulterated and contaminated drugs like fentanyl, which are easy to synthesize and traffic. They create a supply of more potent drugs and a demand for the fastest-acting, cheapest and most dangerous drug delivery method — injection. Criminalization has paradoxically created more crime, and drug users are the victims. This year, 93 per cent of recorded apparent opioid-related deaths were accidental. Eighty-two per cent of these deaths involved fentanyl or fentanyl analogues.
Criminalizing drug use and possession costs taxpayers billions of dollars each year — over $2 billion in law enforcement costs annually. It also has a disproportionate impact on racialized people. Across Canada, 54 per cent of black women sentenced to federal prison are serving time for a drug offence. On average, it costs $111,202 per year to incarcerate a man. It costs twice as much to incarcerate a woman.
When an individual is arrested and jailed for drug use, it forces them into painful withdrawal. Needle sharing, disease transmission and death in jail are not uncommon and are on the rise. Prisoners who inject drugs face a far greater risk of HIV and hepatitis C virus infections. In some facilities, eight per cent of inmates are estimated to be infected with HIV. In 2011, 24 per cent of federal prisoners were antibody positive for hepatitis C. Left with a permanent criminal record, they return home as the things that intensify drug problems — unemployment, trauma, family separation — go unresolved.
Between 2006 and 2013 in Ontario, one in 10 drug toxicity deaths in adults occurred within one year of release from provincial incarceration.
No war on drugs, only people
The threat of imprisonment or a criminal record forces people to hide their drug use, and the fear of stigma prevents them from seeking help.
Let me say it louder for the people in the back: There is no war on drugs, only a war on people.
Every time someone dies alone in a jail cell, hunched over in an alley, keeled over in a restroom stall — because the government sees their health problem as a criminal issue — we lose it. And for what? The false promise of a drug-free society? A twisted notion of moral superiority?
Without a shift in government policy, state-sponsored stigma will continue to push the most vulnerable people in our society to the margins, into the shadows, as fatal overdoses multiply and infections spread.
What needs to happen
Oppressive and exploitative, the war on drugs erodes civil liberties. Collaboration across all jurisdictions — local, provincial, and national — is necessary to increase access to harm reduction health services.
Governments need to support harm reduction measures such as heroin prescription, supervised consumption services and overdose prevention sites, instead of restricting their expansion by making federal exemptions necessary. Removing criminal and civil penalties for personal drug use means lifting restrictions like this on life-saving interventions. The Controlled Drugs and Substances Act needs to be amended to end criminal sanctions.
Prison needle exchange programs need to be scaled up to prevent prisoners returning home to their communities bringing with them illnesses they contracted in prison. We need more support to harm-reduction agencies distributing safer crack-smoking kits, drug testing kits and Naloxone for reversing opioid overdoses.
We can’t reverse the damage the war on drugs has caused, but we can prevent more tragedy through advocating for decriminalization and harm reduction as part of a treatment continuum. Regulation is the end goal.
So what can you do?
Drug policy reform often starts with a bottom-up grassroots approach. We can all play our small part in moving decriminalization forward. It doesn’t matter where you fall on the political spectrum, everyone can get behind this cause. Have a conversation with a friend. Inform yourself and challenge the educational institutions you’re involved with to get it right on drug policy. Call your city councillor, MPP and MP. Tell them it’s time to end this costly war that’s left thousands of bodies in its wake. We can’t afford it anymore.