08/17/2016 12:20 EDT | Updated 08/17/2016 12:20 EDT

Legalization Advocates Should Be First To Address Substance Abuse

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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.)

We should move away from criminalization of drugs to a regime of legalization and regulation. But those advancing that position should be among the first to advocate a proactive stance to tackle the very real problems caused by harmful use of drugs.

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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