Why decriminalizing all drugs makes sense

August 15, 2017

Last week, Ottawa’s medical officer of health, Dr. Isra Levy, pledged Ottawa Public Health’s support for “new evidence-based approaches” to combat the problems caused by illegal drugs including – wait for it – decriminalization.

City Coun.Mathieu Fleury said,“It’s a crazy thought, but it’s a crazy thought that might actually have some merit.

Fleury should be commended. Where Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson had cast off the shackles of evidence-based thinking to stand against the city’s first safe consumption site, Fleury’s open mindedness is a breath of fresh air.

But Fleury is wrong on one point. Decriminalization of all drugs is not a crazy idea at all. If you care about saving lives, if you care about ending the cycle of addiction, if you care about keeping our communities safe, if you care about fiscal responsibility, or even if you only care about cracking down on crime – decriminalization makes sense.

But first let’s look at our current drug policy: criminalization.

There is no need to engage in an exhaustive review of the history of Canadian drug policy. One need not trace the lineage of the 1908 Opium Act through to modern-day mandatory minimum drug sentences to conclude that the criminalization of narcotics has failed to eliminate drugs. The spoils of the tough-on-crime drug war are laid bare on our streets and in our jails.


Sadly, the war on drugs has also done nothing to eliminate the disastrous harms associated with narcotics. In 2011, the considered a subset of these harms, those associated with injectable drug use, in Vancouver’s downtown eastside.

A survey of approximately 1,000 intravenous drug users demonstrated the ills associated with drug use. On average, the surveyed users had been addicted to injectable drugs for 15 years. Eighty-seven per cent were infected with hepatitis C virus (HCV) and 17 per cent with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Twenty per cent were homeless, 80 per cent had been incarcerated, 38 per cent were involved in the sex trade, and 59 per cent reported a non-fatal overdose in their lifetime. Of course, those who had died due to overdose were not captured by the survey’s conclusions.

So, the war on drugs has not eliminated narcotics. It has not reduced the amount of drug crime. It has not reduced the harms that drugs inflict on our society.

In other words, the world’s so-called war on drugs has been a complete and abject failure.

Canada has a drug problem, but it is a problem of policy.  Canadian politicians are still waging an out-dated war.

Decriminalization is a simple idea. Simply put: We should not arrest and jail addicts, we should instead focus the criminal law on importers and traffickers.

From a public health perspective, criminalization of addiction drives drug users into the shadows of back allies – further from treatment programs.

Last year almost 2,500 Canadians died from opioid-related overdoses. Criminalization does nothing to deter drug use, it is an ineffective way to rehabilitate addicts, and it does nothing to save lives.

From a financial perspective, criminalization is damn expensive. It can cost more than $600 a day to incarcerate an addict and that’s before policing and justice system expenses are accounted for. Harm reduction, treatment and prevention cost less and do more good.And what if you are “tough on crime”? Let’s leave aside the disingenuous notion that addicts are criminals. After all, they are only criminals because we say they are. Decriminalization allows police resources to be focused on the criminal organizations that import and sell drugs. Criminal laws do nothing to deter addiction so it only makes sense to focus criminal law where it can actually make a difference.

The history of the criminalization of addiction has been a policy that has disproportionately affected poor and racialized communities. It has done nothing to stop drug use. It has resulted in death and public health catastrophes. It diverts resources away from tackling organized crime. And all of this without any corresponding benefit.

Decriminalization is not a crazy idea. But it is crazy that more politicians – such as Mayor Watson – don’t publicly support it.

Law Blog RSS