There are powerful reasons for the war on drugs to cease. It has not achieved its fundamental objective: suppression of the drug trade. To the contrary, while it has been conducted, many aspects of that trade have flourished. A worldwide illegal market, dominated by gangsters, abounds, with only sporadic and limited interference by national and international authorities.
Not only has the war not realized its basic goal, but it has also imposed great social and human costs along the way: massive imprisonment tinged by racism; misuse of police and other resources that could have been better expended on other public safety issues; a thriving underworld market leaving a trail of violence, extortion and other crimes; tainted substances without any enforceable standards of quality; untaxed revenues; and the endangering and exploitation of children, including those entrapped by rampaging lawlessness in many societies.
There will be a need for a trial and error approach to end illicit markets and oversee supply while aiming to suppress harmful consumption. But better some mistakes and flexibility than rigidity and blindness to the consequences of decades of the war on drugs. As we end prohibition, addressing health concerns and protecting children should be paramount.
But as we urge the move to legalization and regulation, we also need to recognize that Canada has significant issues with drug consumption, both in terms of those that are legal, at present, and those that will become regulated as we shift away from criminalization.
Responses should be focused on addressing problems with substances as public health issues, not criminal ones.
Here are a few grim statistics based on global comparisons:
- Canada has one of the highest rates of per capita consumption of prescription opioids. Heroin, fentanyl from the streets and other deadly fixes make our entanglements with these drugs alarming and, too often, lethal.
- Our kids have the highest rate of marijuana usage among developed societies.
- We have the highest rate of car accident fatalities associated with alcohol among wealthy countries.
- Our per capita consumption of alcohol is in upper range for comparable societies. (A piece of good news: we have low rates of smoking for both adults and kids.)
Responses should be focused on addressing problems with substances as public health issues, not criminal ones. They should also be based on the best evidence possible regarding how to respond and not be influenced by damaging stereotypes of those who use drugs.
Emphasis should be placed on effective strategies for curbing harmful use. Clear and stark messages about our poor showing on a global basis could be one good place to start. Penal sanctions should be reserved for specific instances such as the deadly matter of impaired driving (however caused), the sale of drugs to children, and other violations of the regulatory schemes that will govern the supply and sale of substances.
The goal of a drug-free world (including alcohol and tobacco) is lofty, but unrealistic. The human appetite seeks comfort in substances. It has been ever thus. A drug-free world is as unlikely as a food-free one. Endless pursuit of that goal has left a trail of blood and destruction in its wake. Endless pursuit of that goal has been a magnificent gift to the thugs who preside over an illicit market and who treat human life as a cheap commodity.
Prohibition should end. But as it does we need to squarely face our substance problems -- not by hounding people with criminal sanctions, but with education, counselling and, where needed, treatment -- and by creating an effective regulatory scheme for the safe supply and sale of drugs.
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"Another legal drug, nicotine, kills more people than do alcohol and all illegal drugs -- combined. For decades, government has aggressively publicized the health risks of smoking and made it unfashionable, stigmatized, expensive and inconvenient. Yet 20 percent of every rising American generation becomes addicted to nicotine. So, suppose cocaine or heroin were legalized and marketed as cigarettes and alcohol are. And suppose the level of addiction were to replicate the 7 percent of adults suffering from alcohol abuse or dependency. That would be a public health disaster. As the late James Q. Wilson said, nicotine shortens life, cocaine debases it." -- George F. Will, Op-ed in The Washington Post.
"First, decriminalize possession of small amounts of any drug for personal use. That will have little impact on overall demand for illicit drugs, but it will significantly reduce the arrest and incarceration of millions of people worldwide, most of whom are poor and often members of vulnerable minority groups. It will also cut down on low-level corruption by police." -- Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
A 2010 Cato institute study found: "The report concludes that drug legalization would reduce government expenditure about $41.3 billion annually. Roughly $25.7 billion of this savings would accrue to state and local governments, and roughly $15.6 billion to the federal government. About $8.7 billion of the savings would result from legalization of marijuana, $20 billion from legalization of cocaine and heroin, and $12.6 billion from legalization of all other drugs. Legalization would also generate tax revenue of roughly $46.7 billion annually if drugs were taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco. About $8.7 billion of this revenue would result from legalization of marijuana, $32.6 billion from legalization of cocaine and heroin, and $5.5 billion from legalization of all other drugs."
"The tax revenue collected from alcohol pales in comparison to the costs associated with it. Federal excise taxes collected on alcohol in 2007 totaled around $9 billion; states collected around $5.5 billion. Taken together, this is less than 10 percent of the over $185 billion in alcohol-related costs from health care, lost productivity, and criminal justice. Tobacco also does not carry its economic weight when we tax it; each year we spend more than $200 billion on its social costs and collect only about $25 billion in taxes." -- Gil Kerlikowske, director of the ONDCP (April 2010)
The report, "A Quiet Revolution: Drug Decriminalization Policies in Practice across the Globe", finds that "countries and States as disparate as Belgium, Estonia, Australia, Mexico, Uruguay, the Netherlands and Portugal have adopted different models of decriminalization." Some countries (Spain and the Netherlands) have been moving towards decriminalization since the 1970s -- with the result that their drug use rates are lower than in the United States. -- Ernest Drucker, Huffington Post Blogger
"For example, when The Netherlands liberalized their drug laws allowing the public sale of marijuana, they saw marijuana use among 18-25 years olds double, and the heroin addiction levels triple. They have since reversed this trend, and have begun implementing tighter drug controls. Indeed, today over 70 percent of Dutch municipalities have local zero-tolerance laws. Similarly, when the United Kingdom relaxed their drug laws to allow physicians to prescribe heroin to certain classes of addicts, they saw an entirely new class of youthful users emerge. According to social scientist James Q. Wilson, the British Government's experiment with controlled heroin distribution resulted in a minimum of a 30-fold increase in the number of addicts in 10 years." -- Drug Enforcement Administration (2010)
"[Legalization] does not take away everything [from the cartels], but it would reduce it. A large part of the extraordinary profits of drug lords come from the illegal nature of their business. If you remove the illegal nature, profits will drop. When profits drop, inevitably the violence will also decrease." -- Jorge Castañeda, Former Foreign Minister of Mexico
"What the legalization debate has missed is that it won't be easy for ex-criminals to find a legal job, and that this may increase other criminal activities that hurt Latin American citizens more directly. In places where law enforcement is weak, diversifying a criminal portfolio is an easier way to profit than trying to break into tight legal job markets. Indeed, it is quite plausible that legalization would cause newly unemployed criminals to engage in kidnapping, extortion, robbery and other forms of local crime. A criminal outburst may be the unintended consequence of legalization." -- Viridiana Rios, Harvard Kennedy School doctoral fellow
"Legalization does not mean giving up. It means regulation and control. By contrast, criminalization means prohibition. But we can't regulate what we prohibit, and drugs are too dangerous to remain unregulated." -- Peter Moskos, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in U.S. News and World Report
There is no guarantee that the FDA would be able to regulate newly legalized drugs. The agency holds limited power to control alcohol and tobacco: "The Supreme Court enunciated the strongest arguments against the FDA's authority to regulate tobacco products in FDA v. Brown & Williamson : (1) the FDCA jurisdiction does not specifically include smoking products; (2) the legislative failure of proposed amendments extending FDCA jurisdiction to smoking products; and (3) Congress' enactment of separate "tobacco-specific" legislation. In 1996, the FDA issued a final rule in which it determined that nicotine was a drug and that cigarettes and smokeless tobacco are "drug-delivery devices." A group of tobacco manufacturers, retailers and advertisers filed suit in the Middle District of North Carolina against the FDA." -- Murad Kalam, Harvard Law
As the leading producer of cocaine in the world, and the third most prolific source of marijuana, Colombia has faced drug cartel related violence for over half a century. The "success" of Plan Colombia, a joint U.S.-Colombia military and intelligence project that aimed to tamp down narcotics trafficking as well as the activities of left-wing insurgent groups in the South American country, has often served as an argument against legalization. However, the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) has deemed Plan Colombia only partially successful. In April, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos hosted the 2012 Summit of the Americas, where the drug war was considered a hot-button topic. Santos said world leaders as a whole must first evaluate current initiatives before being able to find a permanent solution to the problem. "If that means legalizing, and the world thinks that's the solution, I will welcome it," Santos told the Daily Mail. "I'm not against it."
President Obama has acknowledged the United State's role in the drug war. "Unfortunately, the drug trade is integrated," Obama said during the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia in April. "And we can't look at the issue of supply in Latin America without also looking at the issue of demand in the United States." Obama opposes legalization, opting instead to fight the demand in the U.S. through education and treatment for addicts. "We've invested ... about $30 billion in prevention programs, drug treatment programs looking at the drug issue not just from a law enforcement and interdiction issue, but also from a public health perspective. This is why we've worked in unprecedented fashion in cooperation with countries like Mexico on not just drugs coming north, but also guns and cash going south." --President Barack Obama at the 2012 Summit of the Americas
The former President of Mexico (2006 - 2012) declared a war against drug cartels that has been deemed unsuccessful by many who say it has prompted more violence. Calderón has often emphasized the need for the U.S. to take responsibility in the Drug War, frequently pointing out that the supply is fueled by "the insatiable [U.S.] appetite for drugs." Once fervently opposed to legalization (speaking out against California's Proposition 19), the former Mexican leader mentioned the need for "market alternatives" as a solution for the drug war -- a statement many believe could mean legalization.
Caught in the middle of the drug trade's flow from South America to the United States, Guatemala's homicide rate of 41 murders per 100,000 people has been attributed to the drug cartels by President Perez Molina. The violence in the country has prompted Perez Molina to advocate for legalization. "What I have done is put the issue back on the table," Perez Molina told CNN en Español. "I think it is important for us to have other alternatives. ... We have to talk about decriminalization of the production, the transit and, of course, the consumption."
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