T. Sicotte wrote a compelling blog regarding the war on drugs, and while many contentions put forth appear prima facie to be convincing and implementable there are cautions that must be contemplated prior to a decision being reached in the mind of the reader.1
Back in 2001 Portugal decriminalized drugs in their nation viewing drug use and addiction as a health issue and not a criminal issue. This notion appears on the surface to be a logical step for western society to follow, however there are multiple concerns with this notion alone. To begin, while addiction is undoubtedly a mental health issue, the use of drugs that form the addiction should be viewed separate from the addiction itself. Mental health issues are prominent in society and the government is working to provide resources for those battling these addictions by implementing and opening safe injections cites. While these are productive steps forward, the drugs themselves, drug users, and drug dealers must all be separated as they are all different issues.
Decriminalizing the use of drugs means that those using and caught in possession of drugs will not be subjected to criminal penalties. The intention here is that those potentially over-dosing on drugs will be able to call for assistance without the concern of being jailed or penalized for requiring medical intervention. While this notion is valid and admirable the purpose of criminalizing drugs is focused on prevention not to combat ongoing use. The initial penalty and risk associated with possession and use of drugs is a deterrence for those who are not addicted, but beginning to use drugs recreationally.
This notion of decriminalization of drugs will create two streams of individuals affected; for those currently addicted to drugs, it allows them to feel safe to call for assistance if they are overdosing. For those contemplating trying drugs recreationally or are not yet addicted to drugs, it removes a powerful deterrence to not do drugs. Now the government is forced to choose what is best for either those that are innocent to deter them from starting, or those that are already addicted to allow them to call for help. Regardless of which route the government chooses the drugs and the drug dealers win.
Looking back at Portugal, they poured efforts into education and public health campaigns to ensure drug use decreased. Ironically, drug use had an immediate increase after decriminalization, most likely due to the lack of a deterrent from experimenting with drugs. However, Portugal is hailed as a success story because after the spike, drug use and deaths due to drugs have deceased. The question now is did the drug use decrease due to the decriminalization, or more likely was it due to the incredible efforts put into education and public health campaigns?
If Canada were looking to follow suit and start taking the “war on drugs” more seriously, the first idea that should be contemplated should be educational efforts and not an immediate decriminalization of drugs. Given Canada’s overall GDP compared to Portugal there are vastly different social, economic, and situational issues that arise. Like many social issues few parallels can be drawn between countries unless they are financially, culturally, and economically similar. The issues that Portugal face on a daily basis are not the same issues that Canada faces. To say that because decriminalizing drugs in Portugal decreased drug use and drug deaths does not mean the same will occur in Canada where there are different social stigmas and economic issues. If Canada were to be taking the war on drugs in a serious manner, treating drug use like a mental health issue is key, meaning that education, health services, and addiction counseling services must be put in place prior to the decriminalization of drugs.
The decriminalization of drugs will heavily affect two primary groups in Canada, one it will negatively affect, and the positive effects of decriminalization on the other group can be found through various other means. Canada can find a middle ground to regulating drug use and drug related deaths without going to an extreme of decriminalizing drug use.
The underlying issue of drug use and abuse is a health issue; thus, this should be treated as a health issue. Decriminalizing the use of drugs will only lead to increases in those using drugs, even if it is only recreationally. The point of criminal penalties is deterrence. For those addicted to drugs, decriminalization will only marginally affect them, however implementing safe-injection cites and resources available for those that overdose without decriminalizing the use of drugs is a stepping stone to combating the war on drugs.
The decriminalization of drugs in Canada could adversely affect a large group of people while providing a benefit to another group that can be achieved through different means. Many times, the simplest solution is not the best solution, and if Canada were to want to win this war, efforts must be put into education not decriminalization.