Decriminalizing hard drugs in British Columbia follows decades of public health advocacy
British Columbia has become the first province to receive an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to lift criminal penalties for possession of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA for personal use.
This means that the police will no longer arrest, charge or confiscate drugs from adults that contain 2.5 grams or less of these substances. Instead, people on drugs will be provided with information about available health and social services and help with referrals to access treatment if they wish.
BC’s daring experiment to decriminalize “hard” drugs will be closely watched as a comparison to other progressive jurisdictions, such as Oregon and Portugal† Decriminalization in these places has been implemented differently, reflecting the distinctive circumstances and priorities that influence drug policy in different global contexts.
As a sociologist who has studied the development of drug policy in Canada for nearly 30 years, it is clear to me that decision-making is a political process that is not based solely on facts. drug policy reflects ideological obligations who are influenced by, and in turn, influence prevailing public attitudes and opinions about drugs. Exposure to the facts– which are also disputed – and constructive dialogue on social norms and values needed to allow for a more meaningful debate.
Decriminalizing drug use is the realization of 50 years of policy discussions call for the lifting of all penalties for small amounts of drugs. The requested public health perspective is just beginning to materialize, despite extensive evidence that: the war on drugs has failed† The research evidence instead supports the view that the ban on substance use has been ineffective, costly, inhumane and harmful to the user and society.
Why so little progress for so long?
Canada has long pursued half measures by adopting a hybrid model that recognizes public health considerations within a legal framework that enforces prohibitions. The Commission of Inquiry LeDain in 1972 proposed phasing out criminal penalties for illegal drug possession, progressive incarceration in favor of medical treatment.
The LeDain report foreshadowed the rise of drug policy aimed at: damage control and the need for greater focus on the principles underlying drug policy debates. What is meant by “damage” has been controversial in determining the proper role of the law when the police and politicians define harm in a way that justifies continuation of the ban.
Ten years after the LeDain report, the entry into force of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms provided legal tools that complemented more scientific, evidence-based arguments for drug policy reform. The success of legal challenges under the Charterhas, however, been largely confined to abolishing the most blatant policing practices and penalties for drug offences.
Major changes in the law may have been expected with the launch of Canada’s Drug Strategy in 1987. The language change was huge: it encompassed the full spectrum of non-medical drug use, including legal drugs such as alcohol, prescription drugs, and even solvents; and it signaled an intent to move in a new direction that diverged dramatically from the war-on-drugs approach.
However, the implementation of the strategy was much less so. Police continued to control the lion’s share of funding, despite promises to pursue a “more balanced” and coherent approach to the use of public health resources.
Thirty-five years later, the situation has changed little. In 2018, after decades of debate, but little action pointing to real willingness to reform, cannabis was legalized in Canada, transforming its users from pariahs to responsible consumers. Users of more dangerous drugs are still treated differently, mainly because such use raises more concerns for crime-fighting than for health protection.
Lessons from other jurisdictions
In Oregon, the lack of full commitment to a public health approach explains the “mixed results.” American-style decriminalization has been adopted there as a social justice remedy to mitigate the impact of the police on marginalized communities.
In 2020, Oregon voters approved a mood measure to decriminalize hard drugs as a way to keep addicts out of prison and into treatment. Possession of controlled substances is now a “violation” with a fine of up to $100. The fine is waived if the violator calls a hotline for assessment, which could lead to treatment.
However, after the first year, only one percent had used the hotline and nearly half failed to show up to court, sparking criticism that the system was too lenient.
The adoption of decriminalization measures by Portugal is implemented more successfullypartly because the social safety net is much more extensive and better integrated with the criminal justice system.
Portugal’s approach is both more robust and nuanced, recognizing that most drug use is “low risk” and requires no intervention. The vast majority of cases referred by the police are considered non-problematic and the charges are suspended. Those who have a pattern of repeated violations may be fined or offered counseling appointments. Substance addiction and abuse in high-risk cases is more likely to lead to referral for non-mandatory treatment.
The adoption by Portugal of a staged intervention system demonstrates a position consistent with a coherent development of harm reduction policy. Drug use is treated as a health problem. And the proof is in the pudding. Since these measures came into effect in 2001, drug-related deaths and drug use have remained below the European Union average. The number of HIV infections from the use of injection drugs and the number of incarcerations for committing drug offenses has also been drastically reduced.
Canada’s adoption of a public health perspective on substance use is hampered by its failure to address the inconsistencies inherent in its hybrid approach. Applying harm limitation within a prohibition framework criminalizes people who are recognized as in need of help in a perverse way.
BC’s daring experiment offers an opportunity to implement more balance in Canadian drug policy and a more principled withdrawal from the war on drugs. Much can be learned from other places in determining the way forward, and the world awaits new lessons to be learned.
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