In 2019, there were a total of 3823 deaths from opioid overdoses in Canada, almost 1000 of which were in the province of British Columbia (Government of Canada, 2020). If drug prohibition was a successful means of controlling drug use within the population, these deaths may not have taken place. Research shows that the “war on drugs” has, in fact, exacerbated addictions issues, encouraged crime, created stigma and has been shown to target the most marginalized citizens. In this paper, I will argue that because current policies aimed at limiting drug use do not work, we should legalize drugs and instead teach people to use them responsibly. Referencing empirical research, I will demonstrate how an evidence-based approach to drug use could positively impact people with substance abuse disorder.
Evidence indicates that the “war on drugs” has failed to achieve its stated objectives of eliminating or reducing the production, consumption, and trafficking of illegal drugs (Tinasti, 2019). Since 1912 when the first international drug control agreement was signed during the Hague Opium Convention, countries have treated drugs and drug trafficking as a criminal issue, punishable by law. In 1990, the international community came together at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGLASS) to pledge tough penalties on drug traffickers and users. Eight years later, in 1998, after drug crimes and illicit international smuggling continued to rise, the members of the United Nations held a second UNGLASS meeting where they pledged, again, to “eliminate or significantly reduce” the use, production and trafficking of non-medical drugs (Tinasti, 2019). Using a three-pillar method, the international community sought to reduce demand, supply, and consequently to reduce harm. Despite growing evidence of the impossibility of eliminating drug use through prohibition, in 2009 the international community chose to renew its commitment to a drug-free world by 2019 based on the same three-pillar strategy of 1998 (Tinasti, 2019). Even though these global commitments were made, as of 2021, the “war on drugs” has not effectively stopped people from accessing and using illegal drugs. It has instead caused significant harm on a global scale.
Drug prohibition fuels the underground market for illicit substances, leading to high prices and unregulated products. This lack of regulation can be pinpointed as one of the main reasons for overdoses among drug users, as there is no consistency or quality control within the black-market drug trade. The high price of street drugs serves to keep drug users in poverty, and often encourages those who are addicted to engage in crime to sustain their habit.
Drug policy has had a substantial impact on racialized and impoverished communities. Designed to target high-level drug dealers and manufacturers, the war on drugs has often been used to justify the apprehension of individual drug users for crimes of procuring and possessing narcotics. While no race-related data for these drug-related arrests has been released, experts agree that by examining the statistics regarding racialized people imprisoned in Canada, we can safely assume that the impact of the war on drugs on these communities is far-reaching and severe (Khenti, 2014). In 2010-2011, Black inmates accounted for 9% of the of the federal prison population although Black Canadians only comprised 2.5% of the overall population (Khenti, 2012). Similarly, Indigenous people in Canada are over-represented in Canadian prisons. Aboriginal people represent 3.8% of the population in Canada, but account for 21.5% of the incarcerated public (Khenti, 2014). Systemic racism in the justice system can not be ignored when examining these statistics, beginning on city streets with racial profiling by police and continuing with inconsistent sentencing for minority citizens when compared to Caucasian offenders in Canadian court rooms.
Public health is undeniably affected by harsh drug enforcement policies, which have been shown to increase risky behaviours such as needle-sharing. Drug users are at high risk for contracting preventable illnesses such as HIV and Hepatitis. Many people with substance abuse disorder feel shame and embarrassment about their drug use, a barrier that often prevents them from seeking medical help until health problems are rampant and difficult to treat. Often, when drug users do access medical care, they fail to disclose their drug use, despite the fact that it may be relevant to their diagnosis. People who use drugs may strategically choose not to disclose the full extent of their drug use to their health care provider over concerns of being denied care, as well as legal, child welfare, housing, and employment consequences associated with the criminalization of drug use (Pearce et al, 2020). Studies have shown that those who do disclose their drug use to health care providers are more likely to experience reduced quality of care and denial of services as a result. In turn, this makes people less likely to seek care in the future due to a fear of not being heard, taken seriously, or given access to the services or medication that they may need. In Canada, Indigenous people are half as likely to disclose their drug use to medical professionals than non-Indigenous people and face a double-threat of further stigmatization in combination with issues of systemic and individual racism (Pearce et al, 2020).
The debate around decriminalization and legalization of illicit substances can become passionate, with valid concerns to be heard on both sides. Those in opposition suggest that the lack of enforcement could lead to more experimentation by citizens, and in turn more incidences of addiction. There is also speculation that legalization could normalize drug use and create a much more accessible market for narcotics. One critic of drug legalization stated that alcohol, present in up to 40 per cent of crimes, plays a bigger role in the drug crime than illicit drugs which are present in about 35 per cent of crimes. This data is used to make the claim that legalization of illicit drugs would, through greater availability, exacerbate the rates and severity of use and addiction and crime (Kopala, 2009). In order to challenge this speculative position, it is important to examine countries with progressive drug policies in place, their successes and their struggles.
In 2001, Portugal made history by becoming the first country to decriminalize possession and personal use of all illicit substances. Instead of arresting drug users, those caught would be issued a small fine, a warning, or a meeting to discuss treatment options and harm reduction with medical professionals and social workers. The opioid crisis soon stabilized, and Portugal saw a dramatic drop in problematic drug use, HIV and hepatitis infection rates, overdose deaths, drug-related crime and incarceration rates. HIV infection plummeted from an all-time high in 2000 of 104.2 new cases per million to 4.2 cases per million in 2013. The data behind these changes has been cited as evidence by harm-reduction movements around the world (Ferreira, 2017). This undeniable positive shift in drug-related issues can be directly attributed to ending the drug war and approaching addiction and substance use as a public health concern, as opposed to a criminal matter.
Many experts and analysts point to the Portugal model as a viable option for drug policy reform in North America, while others suggest that legalization, education, taxation and regulation is the only affective approach to curbing the negative effects of drug addiction in our society. Rick Doblin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) believes that psychedelics specifically have a positive impact on those struggling with certain mental health issues. Psychedelics, he says, should be treated as tools, and are not inherently bad in and of themselves. He specifies that it is a person’s relationship with the drugs that will define their use or misuse (Gillespie, 2020). Advocates like Doblin believe that education and support for drug users is imperative to address addiction and to ensure safety. The message is clear, with plenty of research identifying psychedelics as a beneficial treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Depression, and other mental health issues, these vilified and misunderstood substances (such as LSD, MDMA, and psilocybin from “magic mushrooms”) could become the next breakthrough treatment option.
In conducting my research for this paper, one thing became abundantly clear to me: the stigma attached to the recreational use of drugs can be pinpointed as equally as dangerous, or perhaps more dangerous than the use of the drugs themselves. It is the stigma that discourages people from discussing their drug use. It is the stigma that leads to the non-disclosure of substance use in a medical setting. It is the stigma that prevents people from seeking help when they need it. I believe that the stigmatization around narcotic use is a direct result of the war on drugs and the abstinence-only approach to drug education. Parents are afraid to be honest with their children about their experiences with drugs, and too often avoid conversations that could offer helpful guidance and perspective. As Rick Doblin says, “people should have the fundamental human right to change their consciousness”. (Gillespie, 2020) It is my opinion that legalization and regulation would ensure a safe supply, leading to fewer overdose deaths than we are currently seeing. It is also my belief that the stigmatization of drug users has been partially responsible for the lack of response to the current overdose crisis. When mainstream society views drug users as somehow beneath them, they’re less likely to support the kind of public health initiatives that could ultimately save lives.
While some concerns exist around the legalization of drugs, many can be debunked by observing the positive outcomes seen in Portugal since decriminalizing in 2001. Alternately, the negative effects of the war on drugs on society are well-documented and undeniable. To continue down this same path of drug prohibition would serve to perpetuate the harmful stigma and “othering” of drug users, dehumanizing them and preventing positive change.
Ferriera, Susana. Portugals Radical Drugs Policy is Working, Why Hasn’t the World Copied It? The Guardian, December, 2017
Gillespie, Nick. People Should Have the Fundamental Human Right To Change Their Consciousness . Reason, July 2020
Khenti, Akwatu, The Canadian War on Drugs, Structural Violence and Unequal Treatment of Black Canadians, International Journal of Drug Policy, 2014
Kopala, Margret, A Critique of the Drug Legalization Agenda, C2C Journal, 2009
Tinasti, Khalid. Towards the End of the Global War on Drugs, Brown Journal of World Affairs, 2019
Pearce, Lindsay A., Homayra, Fahmida., Dale, Laura M., Moallef, Soroush., Barker, Brittany., Norton, Alexa., Hayashi, Kanna., Nosyk, Bohdan. Non-Disclosure of Drug Use in Outpatient Health Care Settings: Findings from a Prospective Cohort Study in Vancouver, Canada, International Journal of Drug Policy, 2020