Many of those who used to be dedicated drug warriors are renouncing the War on Drugs in order to work for the liberalization of drug laws. A good example revolves around the story of a Canadian advocate for marijuana legalization who is currently serving five years in an American prison. The man who put him in prison, District Attorney John McKay, took to a podium in Vancouver two years later and argued for the outright legalization of that very drug.
At time of writing, Marc Emery is still serving his sentence in the United States. The Harper government has refused, so far, to permit his transfer to a Canadian prison.
John McKay is by no means the only one who has moved from one side of this debate to the other. Prosecutors, police, medical doctors, mayors, Attorneys General, former and current heads of state, and many others now urge the legalization, regulation, and taxation of marijuana.
Many also argue that the prohibition of other illegal drugs should be lifted and replaced with a legal regime appropriate to each. How has this sea change occurred, and will it result in the wholesale adoption by nations of a new approach to illegal drugs?
Where is Canada in this developing scenario? Ten years ago we were toying with the idea of decriminalizing marijuana — a very modest proposal. Today, we are outliers, denying the science and research that show the criminal justice model to be counterproductive to public safety, to our fiscal health, and to the health of our communities.
The War on Drugs: A Failed Experiment
We are cracking down on illegal drugs, increasing prison sentences, and reducing funding to the many treatment and prevention programs that we know work. How did we get here and why are we virtually alone in ramping up the demonization of certain drugs?
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We were the first in North America to ban marijuana, but also the first to allow for its use as a medication spurred on, it must be admitted, by the Supreme Court of Canada. Parliamentary reports as early as and as recently as have recommended that the prohibition of marijuana be lifted and that a regime of decriminalization or outright legalization be instituted. In , a Liberal government even tabled legislation that purported to effect some minor changes.
However, in , a Conservative minority was elected that solidly backed the War on Drugs. It swiftly hardened its position on punishment of all drug infractions, including harsh mandatory minimum sentences. As of November , judges no longer have any discretion in sentencing most drug offences.
If, for example, an offender grows six marijuana plants, he will face a mandatory prison sentence of six months. If the offender is growing his six plants in a rented unit a house he shares while attending university, for example , the mandatory minimum is nine months. Conservative legislators have ensured maximum coverage by designing additional health and safety factors and aggravating factors. These factors are vague, mandating the application of higher sentences to drug offenders. For example, if an offender is in possession of more than three kilograms of marijuana or resin for the purpose of trafficking, he will receive at least a two-year sentence if he did so for the abuse of authority or position or if he did so in or near a school, in or near an area normally frequented by youth, or in the presence of youth.
Prisons are already bursting with the influx of inmates sentenced under this new regime. Only recently have Canadian politicians opposed to the Conservatives begun to revise their positions on illegal drugs. The Liberal Party of Canada has recently adopted a policy to legalize marijuana, and has designed proposed regulations to this end. None has suggested changes concerning the treatment of other illegal drugs.
Among nations around the world, Canada is now one of the toughest when it comes to waging the War on Drugs. This can only partly be explained by our historic close relationship with the United States. It is true that we are the main trading partner of the United States and share a four-thousand-mile border. Or, as famed author and wit Margaret Atwood put it, we share the longest undefended one-way mirror in the world.
But now the ground is shifting south of the border, sowing confusion among Canadian hardliners who have always been able to rely upon American drug czars and their colossal budgets to support an all-out war. American voters have been retreating from the drug war, electing to legalize pot — in Washington and Colorado in — and expand the number of states allowing for the use of medical marijuana. Currently, twenty states and Washington, DC, allow the prescribing of medical marijuana,  while seven more states are considering this policy change. There have been many high-profile Americans calling for a new approach to this issue.
One of the most influential was broadcaster Walter Cronkite. He said America needed to admit it was wrong about the War on Drugs in the same way that Robert McNamara had later admitted not only that the Vietnam War was wrong, terribly wrong, but that he had thought so at the very time he was helping wage it.
Victory would be ours…. We cannot go into tomorrow with the same formulas that are failing today. Cronkite made these remarks in Almost twenty years later, his plea continues to be ignored. One American who changed his mind in a hurry was California state assemblyman Pat Nolan. Nolan had been all in favour of longer sentences for drug offences until he himself served two years in prison on corruption charges.
Among those around the world who now advocate for a repeal of drug prohibition are high-ranking scientists who have over time changed their minds about illegal drugs. David Nutt first assumed his responsibilities as Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs ACMD in Britain thinking that the country was on the right track in its determined prosecution of illegal drugs.
He also came to deplore a world view shared by drug warriors that "taking certain drugs in certain kinds of ways is not just harmful but immoral. The ACMD had recommended that it should continue to be listed in the less-harmful category, but the government instead reclassified it to a category indicating a higher level of harmfulness. Nutt argued that this ran against the scientific evidence and maintained that, while marijuana was not harmless, it was much less harmful than, say, alcohol.
He was determined to provide a consistent public-health message, and maintained that this was an impossible task if the government refused to talk about the harmfulness of certain legal drugs. As he put it, The more hysterical and exaggerated any Home Secretary was about the harms of cannabis, the less credibility they would have in the eyes of the teenagers binge-drinking themselves into comas every day.
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As a result of the inevitable confrontation, Dr. They have since gone on to form the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs ISCD , which urges people and governments to consider drug policy in the light of objective evidence. Nutt says, Being willing to change our minds in the light of new evidence is essential to rational policy-making. British police officers, medical professionals, politicians, and many others have also changed their minds and are lobbying hard for change.
In Latin America, heads of state and former heads of state are seeking a different approach to illegal drugs. Violence and the organized crime associated with the narcotics trade remain critical problems in our countries. They tentatively suggested the decriminalization of marijuana, and recommended focusing on a health and education approach to drug use, rather than repression.
Another former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, has been vocal about the drug war. The War on Drugs convoked by President Nixon 40 years ago has been a total failure, he says. And yet because of a flawed public policy, because of lack of education and disinformation, because of lack of better economic incentives and opportunities, they became victims of an insane war against an enemy we can never defeat with the current prohibitions in place. He says the prerequisite to legalization will be the repeal of prohibition by the United States. If we are to design a workable response to drug use, we will have to first clear our minds of the propaganda that has permeated the debate for the past century.
Myths about cocaine and overblown fears about heroin permeate popular culture and have infiltrated much of the discourse. Like most others, I bought the whole package. But it turns out drugs are just drugs, although some are more harmful than others. And the biggest problem today actually relates to the abuse of legal prescription drugs -- not heroin and cocaine.
Our objective should be to reduce the harm caused by all of them.
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I believe that the most fundamental questions are not being asked. How, for example, did we ever think that the solution to curbing the use of certain drugs was to be found solely in the implementation of the criminal justice system?
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Why did we think it appropriate to criminalize people for ingesting substances that we disapprove of, even when there was no victim and no violence involved? We don't incarcerate people who ingest excessive amounts of tobacco or alcohol, even though the potential harms are serious and quantifiable. Well, you say, people use psychoactive drugs to get "high," and somehow that is supposed to justify it. People don't use alcohol to get "high"? Using this reasoning, we make a conscious choice every day to treat people who abuse certain substances as criminals, rather than as what they are, which is ill.
How different would the scene be today if we had started a hundred years ago employing our public health system to deal with drug addiction instead? Much is explained by the bigotry of the past, but by we should have advanced beyond these attitudes. It is clear to me that we have to begin by rejecting the rationale behind criminalization. It is essential that we stop considering drug users as "the other. It behooves us to treat them as we would want to be treated -- with care, respect and compassion.
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