By Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press
“It is becoming more challenging to justify the criminalization of drug users,” the study says and cites several examples of state policies around the world.
Alternatives to criminalizing a variety of illicit drugs in Canada could result in lower rates of use and fewer harms such as addiction, overdoses and infectious diseases. This is according to an internal federal study.
The Justice Department research paper stresses there are healthier and less costly ways of addressing illegal drug use. It notes that the biggest hurdles might be political — not practical — ones.
“It is becoming more challenging to justify the criminalization of drug users,” the study says.
“Drawing on international evidence, Canada can be a leader in national and international drug policy reform.”
The Canadian Press used the Access to Information Act to obtain a draft copy of the November 2015 study. It’s titled “Criminalizing Drug Possession and Use: Different Policy Approaches and International Alternatives.”
The Liberal government has promised to legalize access to marijuana to keep it out of the hands of children. This would also deny profits to criminals.
The current system of prohibition does not stop young people from smoking pot and too many Canadians end up with criminal records for possessing small amounts, the Liberals say.
The previous Conservative government objected to legalizing marijuana. They also opposed the idea of safe-injection sites for drug users and introduced several mandatory minimum penalties for drug offences.
The study takes a broad look at state policies around the world. This includes approaches to harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin — and the resulting outcomes. The paper concludes there are successful alternative approaches, including early education, prevention and treatment of those who become users.
It cites several examples, including:
— The Netherlands, where access to syringes and prescribed heroin have been followed by a reduction in petty crime and a drop in the number of dependent drug users;
— Portugal, which has seen fewer opioid-related deaths and HIV/AIDS diagnoses after decriminalization of drug use;
— The United States, where decriminalization of small amounts of cannabis in more than a dozen states in the 1970s did not result in greater increases in use of the drug among adults or adolescents when compared with other states.
The study was initiated in 2015 by the Justice Department’s research and statistics division — months before the Liberals took office. The aim was to gauge the impact of policy approaches around the globe, said Andrew Gowing, a Justice Department spokesman.
“The government is not currently considering any options related to the possession and use of drugs, other than the legalization and strict regulation of marijuana,” Gowing added.
Still, even the fact the federal government is studying the issue encourages professor Archie Kaiser at Dalhousie University. He has written about decriminalizing marijuana and advocates a broad-based retreat from the war on drugs.
“You want governments to gradually think about using the same kind of enlightened approach to other drugs,” he said.
But Kaiser cautioned: “With drugs that have a greater likelihood of causing dependence and addiction, and where there are higher risks to users, you may have to have a different blend of policy choices.”