Calgary Herald - June 4, 2012
By Colin Kenny
The “war on drugs” may outstrip Iraq and Afghanistan as failed campaigns. Lives are being destroyed. Money is being squandered. And the enemy isn’t going away.
North American leaders Stephen Harper, Barrack Obama and Felipe Calderón are clearly addicted to a world-wide strategy to wipe out drug abuse. Despite the fact that this war – initiated by the late U.S. president Richard Nixon – is now more than 40 years old, drug use continues to escalate in North America and just about everywhere else.
There are an estimated 250 million drug users around the world. Use of opiates rose by 34 percent between 1998 and 2008; cocaine use was up by 27 percent. In the words of the Global Commission on Drugs, “Arresting and incarcerating tens of millions of [drug users] in recent decades has filled prisons and destroyed lives and families, without reducing the availability of illicit drugs or the power of criminal organizations.”
Not only is the war on drugs a failure, it causes collateral failures. The destruction wrought on countries in Central America and Africa because governments have left the distribution of illicit drugs in the hands of the cartels amounts to the reverse of foreign aid – rich countries are spending huge amounts of money to create anarchy in poor countries.
It is arguable that world hunger could have been wiped out by now if the funds spent on the war against illicit drugs had been diverted to more constructive uses. I would also argue that far fewer North Americans would be using illicit drugs if the drug war money had been spent on education, treatment, and setting up controlled sources of supply run or supervised by governments, rather than drug cartels and dealers.
The United States is spending $25 billion a year to eradicate illicit drug sales, not including the huge cost of imprisoning drug users and drug suppliers; Canada is spending $2.5 billion. The usefulness of Canada’s police services, border control officers and prison guards is constantly being undermined by the attention these institutions are required to devote to snuffing out the sources of illegal drugs.
Like the attempted prohibition of alcohol in the United States between 1920 and 1933, the war on drugs has been about as effective as shooting rifles into the air. It took 13 years for the Americans to recognize that alcohol wasn’t going away and to begin taxing sales to make money, rather than losing money trying to eliminate supply.
You say illegal drugs can’t be compared to alcohol? Surely drugs like heroin and cocaine are more likely to inflict permanent damage on individual users than is alcohol in terms of average use. Still, alcohol kills a lot of people. The Global Commission on Drug Policy ranks heroin first, cocaine second, barbiturates third, and alcohol fourth in terms of their potential to harm users. Marijuana? It ranks tenth.
Some illicit drugs are dangerous. Others are very, very dangerous. Illicit drugs can destroy lives. The use of these drugs demands society’s attention, to be sure.
But are we paying attention in the right way? The Canadian government is introducing a crime bill that will make possession of as few as six marijuana plants an indictable offence, punishable by a minimum of six months in jail and a maximum of 14 years. Meanwhile, liquor stores around the country are promoting their products with ever-increasing advocacy and sophistication.
Remember, alcohol ranked fourth on that list. Marijuana ranked tenth. So you have to wonder if our failed approach to discouraging marijuana use among young people makes any sense. Young people are rebellious, and their rebellions feed off older people’s hypocrisy.
Most young people are also smart – they may be able to smell propaganda a mile away, but they’re open to honest education. For the past decade federal governments have been funding education about the effect of tobacco on health. The campaign has been a spectacular success.
The government’s investment helped drop the percentage of Canadians who smoke to 17 percent in 2010 from 25 percent in 1999, with the teenage smoking rate falling to 12 percent from 28 percent. Young people listened.
So is the government proudly trumpeting the news of its success? Nope. In the wake of the happy news it has decided to kill the entire grants and contributions program of the Federal Tobacco Control Strategy, leaving organizations like the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association, Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada and the Canadian Council for Tobacco Control in free fall.
Prohibition and punishment has clearly failed as an anti-drug strategy. Education is clearly succeeding on the tobacco front – and remember, some experts rank the difficulty of quitting tobacco use with quitting the use of narcotics. But we’re sticking with prohibition and punishment on marijuana.
Harper has acknowledged that the war on drugs isn’t working. Speaking to reporters at the Summit of the Americas in April, the prime minister said, “What everyone believes and agrees with, and to be frank myself, is that the current approach is not working, but it is not clear what we should do.”
He might consider experimenting with programs that don’t involve the use of the word ‘war’, which is what The Global Commission on Drugs is recommending.
Portugal decriminalized the use and possession of all illicit drugs more than a decade ago. The rate of usage in Portugal has climbed at about the same rate as it has in the rest of the world – only the Portuguese aren’t wasting enormous amounts of money trying to stem the tide.
Swiss addicts have been able to get measured doses of heroin at sanctioned clinics since 1994. This has reduced criminal sales, and with fewer criminals on the scene, there is reduced temptation for first-time users.
In Britain, crack cocaine users who have had drug treatments have been only half as likely to reoffend.
Several of the leaders at the Summit of the Americas attempted to convince Harper and Obama that new approaches are needed. They didn’t appear to be listening.
Why? The Canadian prime minister’s rationale may be ideological – he tends to be a fire-and-brimstone kind of guy. The American president’s rational may be practical – political attack ads would undoubtedly nail him for being “soft on drugs” if he started looking for an intelligent alternative to this war.
But sooner or later we voters are going to have to be open to a new, “smart on drugs” approach. If we don’t, all the violence and squandering of resources will continue. And we’ll have only ourselves – and our leaders – to blame.
[Colin Kenny is former Deputy Chair of the Special Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs. He wrote and sponsored bills S-13, S-20, The Tobacco Youth Protection Act & S-15 the Tobacco Industry Responsibility Act. firstname.lastname@example.org)