Drug prohibition ignores science, compassion, experience and logic
by Craig Jones
When Prime Minister Harper introduced his National Anti-Drug Strategy (NADS) in October 2007, drug policy experts braced for the worst. The NADS promised to put good electoral politics ahead of good policy through the reinvigoration of punitiveness, one of many imports from the American criminal justice model which the Conservatives have incorporated into their politics.
The NADS essentially proclaims that drugs cause crime, that crime is bad and that therefore government needs to do something about drugs. The Prime Minster signalled unambiguously that his government would not permit a vision for drug control to be clouded by complexities arising from patterns of use, the failure of existing policy, human rights, the concurrence of drug abuse with mental illness and homelessness or other such distractions. The NADS was designed to harmonize with the government’s chest-pounding on crime and social disorder generally and to signal to true believers – in Canada and Washington – that the “new government” was “getting tough.” Drug prohibition – including the whole testosterone-fuelled “tough on crime” swagger so beloved by Conservatives – has the virtue of making elected officials appear to be “doing something” to address the violence that black markets invariably produce. “Cracking down” creates the appearance of muscularity for governments that seem otherwise hapless in the face of social trends they neither understand nor seem to be able to control.
The new punitiveness was coupled with deemphasis of the public health piece that had dominated Ottawa’s approach to drugs under Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien. Previous Canadian governments had essentially decided that they could not – given the centrality of Canada-U.S. relations – substantially depart from a drug control strategy to which successive U.S. administrations were zealously committed, despite its obvious failure to deliver on its key objectives. So to blunt the harshest consequences of a full-blown American-style “war on drugs,” they had recast Canada’s drug control strategy by locating it, in effect, between law enforcement and public health until serious reform prospects opened up.
Governments had good evidence and arguments for rethinking prohibition. In its 1999 study Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base, the U.S. Institute of Medicine concluded that “cannabinoids likely have a natural role in pain modulation, control of movement, and memory” and that more research was warranted into the medicinal potential of cannabinoid-based drugs.1
In September 2002, the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, chaired by Conservative Senator Claude Nolin, released a substantial study of Canada’s drug control experience and policy concluding that prohibition of cannabis – approximately 75 per cent of the entire illicit drug trade – not only did not reduce demand but in fact made everything about drug use worse, and that far-reaching legislative changes could bring about a rational drug control policy that produced fewer harmful consequences for users, families and communities.2