With the Canadian government planning to legalize marijuana by July 2018, now is an important time to discuss the impact of existing drug policies in Canada. The criminalization of drugs has created a huge burden on the criminal justice system and has contributed to the continual stigmatization of people with drug addictions.
The current legislation governing drug control was developed nearly 100 years ago and was heavily influenced by racism and prevailing political agendas. The Opium Act (1908), replaced by the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (1996), prohibited the use of psychoactive substances in Canada which had the unintended effect of creating a black market for illegal drugs. Drug enforcement efforts are largely targeted towards youth of colour, specifically Black offenders who have been disproportionately represented in federal prisons over the last few decades and are more often incarcerated for drug-related offences than White offenders.
These trends are similar among Indigenous populations, who account for 23 per cent of the federal inmate population (as of 2013), while only comprising about 4 per cent of the Canadian population. Substance abuse in Aboriginal communities is linked to mental health issues resulting from the intergenerational impacts of trauma related to past colonial practices and ongoing cultural oppression. Yet conversations surrounding issues of drug use and substance abuse within these communities often focus on the stigmas associated with these activities, rather than the issues related to identity, residential schools, or the severe lack of social support services that are often a part of the problem.
A Health Issue
Approaching substance abuse and drug addiction from a health perspective recognizes the distinction between the harms of drugs themselves and the implicit harms of prohibition. Addiction can co-exist with mental health issues since drugs are often used to alleviate feelings of isolation, depression, anxiety, and distress. Identifying the issue as a matter of crime fails to acknowledge the various factors that can lead to drug abuse and addiction, including environment, trauma, and lack of social integration.
A study examining the behaviour of rats enclosed in cages with access to lethal drugs found that drug consumption was far greater among isolated rats in comparison to socialized rats that were in shared cages. These findings clearly demonstrate that isolation is a strong stimulus for drug consumption as opposed to the addictive nature of the drug itself. The study provides value by recognizing that drug addiction can be a means of coping. As with other forms of addiction, the addiction itself is a symptom of a much deeper problem.
Lessons from Portugal
In 2001, Portugal decriminalized the use of all drugs and implemented treatment and harm reduction services for drug users. The intention of these policies was to address public health concerns while also eliminating the stigmas created by previous policies focused on criminalization. The Portuguese government invested in the necessary infrastructure with the expansion of treatment and harm reduction services to support drugs users. As a result, the country has experienced significant improvements to public health and safety with reductions in drug-induced deaths, HIV/AIDS infections, problematic drug use, arrests due to drug-related offences, and offences committed under the consumption of drugs.
Canada’s existing regime has not contributed to a reduction in drug-related harm, and growing evidence suggests that incarceration is less cost-effective than drug treatment. Critics might argue that decriminalization policies will encourage further drug use. However, following decriminalization in Portugal, drug prices did not decrease nor did consumption subsequently increase in the long term due to the inelastic demand for illegal drugs.
Further examination is necessary to understand the implications of decriminalization in the Canadian context. In order to follow in the footsteps of Portugal, we need to reassess Canada’s drug problem and subsequently reframe our understanding of drug use and addiction. As a society, we need to change the conversations around these issues. We must refrain from perpetuating harmful stigmatizations by instead emphasizing the importance of empathy and developing a deeper understanding of the underlying circumstances that cause drug use.
Harpreet Sahota is a first year MPP candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a Bachelor of Administrative Studies with Specialized Honours in Management from York University. Her policy interests include social and urban policy, with a focus on health and the environment. When she is not in the library, she enjoys being outdoors or eating a plethora of bananas.