Marijuana legalization is finally here and maybe you’re OK with that, maybe you’re not.
Maybe you are a bit worried about what might come next. Is this a step onto the slippery slope of legalizing cocaine? Methamphetamine? Heroin? What would that mean for you and your tax dollars?
Well, let’s take a look at your tax dollars.
We’re spending more than $2 billion annually on jailing and policing players in Canada’s illicit drug trade — about $55 each for every Canadian.
Regardless of your politics, that may raise some flags. You may wonder why people who use drugs cost the government so much money. Or you wonder why we are spending so much criminalizing people who struggle with addiction. Especially given the failure of Canada’s “war on drugs” to reduce the damage done, cut crime or save lives.
On the other end of our current policy spectrum is the public health approach. In B.C., we are in the midst of a bona fide “public health emergency” due to the unprecedented rates of overdose death.
This has opened up new streams of funding dedicated to the “emergency response.” For example, the Overdose Emergency Response Centre received $322 million from the provincial government in 2017 to spend over three years to address the crisis.
Again, regardless of your political leanings, you may be disappointed by the public health approach upon closer examination.
While the overdose response has been somewhat effective, with an estimated 3,030 deaths averted according to recent analysis, the crisis is in no way over. Death rates are still far higher than before the crisis hit, with an average of three British Columbians dying every day.
Why isn’t the public health approach saving more lives? One factor is that because drug use is criminalized, public health programming operates within severe legal constraints. In practice, this means that large portions of program budgets go not towards preventing overdose, transitioning folks to treatment or providing a safer supply, but to flying through procedural and legal hoops, hoops set by the government itself.
Our resources are spinning around inside a bureaucracy machine that criminalizes at one end and empathizes on the other. Drug issues suck in more and more money as politicians “dedicate resources” to the issue, aiming to placate a snowballing constituency of people affected by the crisis. Whether or not you believe the overdose crisis is a priority, it is simply not possible for governments to ignore its death tolls, which resulted in the first decrease in British Columbians’ life expectancy in four decades.
Earlier this year, Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry called on the B.C. government to take urgent action on decriminalizing drug use and published a 48-page evidence-based report outlining a process the government could use.
Decriminalization would not mean anyone could purchase heroin at a retail store. Gang-related illicit drug networks would still be illegal, but we would look past the people carrying small quantities of drugs for their personal use. The process proposed in the report relies on cooperation from the police.
But in an example of the blinkered approach to drug use, Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth rejected the report’s suggestion within less than 24 hours.
Decriminalization won’t end the opioid crisis altogether, but it can pave the way for new approaches that could.
Decriminalization is the first step towards reconciling a drug strategy that is at odds with itself. Many have said that the war on drugs is a failure, but we have yet to collectively acknowledge the reality of a system that tries to move forward at the same time as it undermines itself.
And to be clear, a complete regression to the criminal approach is not an option. Even former prime minister Stephen Harper conceded in 2012 that “the current approach is not working.” And this was before fentanyl even hit the scene.
Farnworth, in his response to Henry’s call for decriminalization, states that as with cannabis, “no one province can go it alone.”
It is a curious response, since Henry had set out a clear path for B.C. to do just that. And considering the province going it alone is just what had happened on cannabis. As Vancouver police increasingly saw that policing cannabis was not a priority, they turned a blind eye, freeing up resources for more important and effective tasks. Indeed, defiance from the province may even have paved the way for recent national-level changes.
So for the love of all that is good, could we please just skip the charade this time? A pathway was laid out so neatly by cannabis decriminalization just a few years back. All we need to do is take that one brave step. If we do, we can save quite a few lives and bucks along the way.