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Ottawa Citizen Online Dialogue Page

Wednesday 16 April 1997

Decriminalizing drugs IV

The Ottawa Citizen

In the first three editorials of this series, we argued that: l The legal status of drugs has no substantial effect on drug consumption.

  • Criminalization unnecessarily puts a lucrative trade in the hands of organized crime.

  • The impossibility of stopping drug use leads to drastic measures that corrode civil liberties.

  • The essence of freedom is the right to choose what to do with one's body, including choosing to ingest drugs.

    For all these reasons, we support the decriminalization of drugs.

    Taken to its limit, our way of thinking would remove virtually all constraints on adults' ability to ingest what they will. "Adult" should be emphasized, of course. None of the concerns that lead us to support legalization need permit minors to use drugs. In a free society, paternalism for adults is offensive and unnecessary but paternalism for children is perfectly appropriate.

    In contemporary Canadian society, however, the extreme libertarian position, whatever its merits in logic, is simply not on in the near future. (Though we have been thinking about drugs we have not actually been smoking them.) We therefore propose an incremental approach to decriminalization.

    The first step would be the legalization of marijuana. For over a century, one commission after another has found that marijuana is no more harmful than alcohol or tobacco -- and may be much less so, given that marijuana-induced death is virtually non-existent, whereas in 1992 alcohol was at least implicated in 6,701 deaths and tobacco in another 33,498 deaths. Many such commissions have taken the next logical step of recommending legalization, most notably the 1972 LeDain Commission. In fact, in the 1977 throne speech Pierre Trudeau's government promised to legalize possession. Recently several senators braved the "tough on crime" mood to publicly support legalization.

    It is important to realize that marijuana would not be the first drug to undergo legalization. Alcohol has that distinction, and the framework that governs that drug's legal existence could provide a model for marijuana regulation.

    Though we favour less government control of the alcohol trade, to allay public concerns about a future marijuana trade, producers could be licensed and taxed and sales permitted only through licensed establishments and government control boards -- though if things went well, we would then begin militating for the privatization of both alcohol and marijuana sales.

    As already noted, those under 18 years of age would not be permitted to buy marijuana. Products would be labelled so consumers would know precisely what they were buying. And government inspectors would test to ensure the consumer was not receiving contaminated goods. Canadians would have an orderly marijuana sales and regulatory system mirroring that for alcohol. It would be safe, efficient, free of criminal violence -- and eventually, we hope, subject to privatization.

    Would legalization cause a sudden jump in consumption, particularly by minors? Would the use of harder drugs increase? Would crime inspired by the marijuana trade swell? Almost a century's experience with drug regulation in jurisdictions around the world suggests these indicators would either be unaffected or dramatically improve, but if this were not the case we would have ample opportunity to decide whether any changes in consumption should override personal freedom.

    A next obvious step, five or 10 years down the road, would be the legalized possession of other currently illicit drugs. Again, we expect this would not lead to a great rise in consumption. And it would provide an appropriate background for helping those truly hurt by drug abuse: addicts.

    There is no doubt that the use of many drugs -- legal and illegal alike -- can escalate into full addiction and the suffering that entails. A society that legalizes drugs will escape the many miseries that criminalization imposes, but it must find effective ways to deal with the damage drugs can do.

    In fact, the number of people who use illicit drugs and slide into the abyss of destructive addiction is a small fraction of those who have used illicit drugs at one time or another. A typical study of cocaine use in Ontario, for example, found that 95 per cent of users used it less than once a month. The best way to fight addiction is not by prohibition but by helping those relatively few individuals who suffer destructive addiction.

    This is the principle of "harm reduction," the philosophy which guides most work in the field of illicit drug addiction. Harm reduction programs treat addicts not as criminals, but as dignified, if troubled, individuals. These programs have successfully brought addicts into treatment while reducing the peripheral social effects associated with addiction. Legalization of drug possession, although not a prerequisite for harm reduction programs, would greatly help this work by removing the threat of criminal sanction that currently hangs over addicts.

    The history of drug use confirms that we will never live in a drug-free society: Too many people inevitably just say yes. But we can have a society in which the worst effects of drug addiction are minimized, and those who are addicted are helped. We can have a society where mafia and biker gangs are not made rich and powerful by the ban on drugs.

    Most importantly, we can have a society where the criminal law reflects not expediency and prejudice but principle. We can work toward a society clearly and consistently founded on the great liberal maxim of John Stuart Mill, that: "The individual is not accountable to society for his actions, insofar as these concern the interests of no person but himself."


    Copyright 1997 The Ottawa Citizen