It is time to admit that the war on drugs is nothing more than a failed government program.

It has been said that the first step to overcoming a drug addiction is admitting that there is a problem. Before any diagnosis or treatment is feasible, it is important to recognize that one does in fact have a problem.

In the case of the drug war, there is copious addiction, and it is time to admit that there is a problem.

In fact, the drug war itself has become an addiction to many that few seem able to recognize. We sit in our homes and marvel at the good we have done in the world by keeping drugs ‘illegal’. In this, the war on drugs imposes a severe case of doublethink on its supporters: while proud of the policies that supposedly keep drugs out of fellow citizens’ hands, many simultaneously look down on the sick and addicted who live on the sidewalk. We cross the street when we see them approaching. We turn a blind eye to avoid having to interact with them, thus to avoid acknowledging that our policies are not working.

In this sense, the fiercest drug warrior today is just as addicted as the junkie in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. But while both are addicted to something that causes harm, there is a stark difference between the two from the viewpoint of society. While the drug addict’s condition can be attributed to individual choices (bad ones, no doubt), the drug warrior is doing good. ‘He is protecting people.’ Not to mention that while the drug addict works to satisfy his fix in plain day, the drug warrior’s urges can be outsourced to government agency after government agency. It is time to acknowledge the responsibility of the harm caused by drug prohibition. After all, the first step to overcoming an addiction – in this case, to drug laws – is admitting that one has a problem.

The war on drugs hurts us, but we love it. Just as a chronic heroin user continues to feed his addiction despite its detrimental consequences on himself, our society continues to sate its prohibitionist appetite – even as it does us more harm than good. We are so in love with the drug war that it has become a sacred cow of our political dialogue. Few are ambitious enough to advise against preserving the current system, lest they be cast as foolishly ideological, malicious, uncaring, or even ‘on drugs?’ themselves.

This, however, doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. Despite its seemingly untouchable position in our policies and laws, is there any other political enterprise that does even half as much harm as the drug war that we also refuse to abandon?

But while the negative effects of drug prohibition are obvious, we refuse to admit defeat. The war has pushed the sale of narcotics underground, flooded the pockets of violent dealers and traffickers with astounding profits, and allowed for no mechanism to control to quality of the drugs that addicts consume. It has made our streets less safe, has ostracized the most vulnerable in our midst, aggressively violated the most fundamental of civil liberties, and expanded the role of the Federal government to infringe on the jurisdiction of the provinces. Do these sound like the spoils of victory?

The first failure of the war on drugs has been its inability to avert a high degree of access to drugs. If the goal of the war on drugs was to prevent people from accessing drugs, then in short, it has certainly failed. According to the Canadian Tobacco Alcohol and Drugs Summary of 2015, roughly 13% of Canadians admitted to using either cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy, methamphetamines, hallucinogens or heroin within 12 months; that’s roughly 3.7 million people who admit to using drugs. In other words, 3.7 million Canadians were perfectly able to bypass the prohibitions of the current system to gain access. Is there any case other than the drug war in which people consider 3.7 million people breaking the law to be a success?

Not only does the current system fail to prevent people from accessing and using illicit drugs, it also fails to prevent people from dying because of drugs. 640 British Columbians alone have died of an overdose so far this year. In 2016, the total number of overdose deaths was 967. The British Columbia Coroners Service stated that in May of 2017 an average of 4.2 people died per day of a drug overdose. As the admittedly limited, but striking, Canadian statistics on the subject reveal, the idea that the war on drugs actually keeps drugs out of the hands of individuals is patently false.

Instead, the current system of drug prohibition attempts to hide any evidence of regular drug usage by forcing the community of drug users and dealers into the black market. The consequences of this action have been devastating. Organized crime, astounding profits for dealers and traffickers, and poor quality control are always sure to follow any legal sanctions on a substance.

In 2014, Statistics Canada released a report that determined that 56% of the drug-related offences they recorded were done for the benefit of organized crime. These were offences of drug production or trafficking. Therefore, more than half of the recorded drug-related crime in that year was carried out by organized criminals seeking to capitalize on the astounding profits of the illicit drug trade, as opposed to individuals creating, selling, and using for themselves. Additionally, in Vancouver alone, 70% of all criminal activity is estimated to be associated with drugs.

It goes without saying that organized crime is a menace to society; Murder, theft, corruption, and other societal ills can often be attributed to the presence of organized crime in Canada. With this in mind, does it not seem sensible to strip away their ability to make such easy money to fund their operations? The Royal Canadian Mounted Police also released a report in 2009 on the status of illicit drugs in Canada, and their relation to organized and disorganized crime. In the report, they conclude, that the sale of illegal drugs – especially marijuana and cocaine – provided considerable profits to organized crime in Canada. Estimates regarding the total sales of illegal drugs in Canada range from $7 billion to $18 billion. 

Another result of the consumption and sale of drugs being seceded to the black market is the inability to ensure safe products. The risks associated with consuming untested narcotics have always posed a significant threat to users, but in light of the emerging fentanyl crisis, this risk is beginning to truly manifest itself. This is a direct result of a lack of quality control; which follows any unregulated and illegal product. The same can be said of alcohol under prohibition: rotgut killed.

Deaths due to fentanyl-laced drugs have increased by 109% from 2016 to 2017, according to the British Columbia Coroner Service, and fentanyl has been detected in 78% of illicit drugs in overdose deaths from January to May of 2017. The likely cause of this epidemic is that users are not aware of what is in their drug. They do not know that they are purchasing, say, a joint laced with fentanyl; or are taking a bump that contains the substance.

This problem could be solved with the legalization, as well as regulation, of the currently illegal drugs. Under the current system, to sell unsafe alcohol is a crime. The disincentives of selling such a product – loss of license, or even jail – are severe enough that alcohol, when used responsibly, is near harmless. But the current system has made it a crime to even engage in the habit of using drugs. Therefore, the only sources to buy from are unregulated, faceless, street pushers – who have little to no incentive to ensure a safe product. The war on drugs thus heightens the risk of dying from an overdose. In this respect, as well as many more, the war on drugs has failed.

But despite its failures, it continues; sucking millions of dollars in government funds, as well as costing billions annually in economic and social costs. It has been said that the Canadian Federal government spends, through 11 different agencies, $500 million annually to address drug use – not to mention the contributions from local governments; provincial and municipal. The crux of the matter, however, is that for every $1 spent on health matters relating to drug use (treatment), the government spends $4 on enforcement. And, as previously established, the enforcement does not work. There are still people getting the drugs, still people taking the drugs, and still people dying from the drugs.

The economic and social costs are also severe; including the costs of health care, law enforcement, property crime, and lost productivity, the estimated annual loss of society is $5 billion

This futile fight against drugs has also encroached on the jurisdiction of local governments across Canada. Most notably, the case of Canada (AG) v PHS Community Services Society enshrined the right of the Federal government to intrude on the ability of provincial governments to manage the drug issue in their own way. Now, this sort of overreach on the part of the Federal government is bad in call cases; but it is doubly shameful when the Federal solution is the wrong one and the provincial solution is correct.

The decision in Canada (AG) v PHS Community Services Society may, however unfortunately, be constitutionally sound due to the inadequacy of the British North America Act‘s ability to protect the authority of local governments with its unsatisfactory enumeration of the division of powers. Unlike in the United States, the power to oversee criminal law in Canada rests in the Federal government – according to sections 91 and 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867.

In the case of Canada (Attorney General) v. PHS Community Services Society, some background information may be necessary. From Wikipedia:

In September 2003, the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority and the Portland Hotel Society opened Insite, North America’s first supervised drug injection site, in Downtown Eastside Vancouver, an area racked by high drug use. s 4(1) and 5(1) of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) prohibited the possession and trafficking of controlled substances, and so in order to operate, Insite was obligated to apply for an exemption for medical and scientific purposes from the CDSA. The federal Minister of Health, whose discretionary powers under s 56 of the CDSA permitted the granting of exemptions, allowed Insite’s application. Insite received further extensions on their exemption in 2006 and 2007. In 2008, Minister of Health Tony Clement failed to extend the exemption, casting doubt on Insite’s ability to operate the facility in the future. In response, Insite launched a court challenge against the federal government.

The Supreme Court rejected the province’s claim that inter-jurisdictional immunity applied to provincial health jurisdiction, and therefore Federal prohibitions against drugs would supersede efforts taken by the government of British Columbia to manage the issue in their own way. Conversely, however, while affirming the overarching right of the Federal government to determine the criminal law of the provinces, the Supreme Court ordered the Health Minister to extend the exemption to Insite.

The case Canada (Attorney General) v. PHS Community Services Society is a messy example of Canadian federalism. Although the Supreme Court ruling led to a, more or less, libertarian or federalist outcome, the way in which it was done was so activist and arbitrary, that it leaves the door open to future reinterpretation of the doctrine of double aspect law. While simultaneously entrenching the Federal government’s authority over all criminal matters, and thus facilities such as Insite, as well as forcing the Federal government to grant the exemption, the court overextended itself and stripped away power from both legislative branches of government.

Furthermore, all of these efforts previously mentioned are taken to prevent the most fundamental of human rights: to decide what we do with ourselves. This argument is common and overused, but it’s gravity is unquestionable: It seems rather ludicrous for the government to tell consenting people what they can, as well as cannot, put into their bodies. Can you really claim to live in a free society, so long as that society restricts you from purchasing and consuming the products that you want?

The simplest argument for ending the current system is one that points out that the institutional prohibition against certain victimless activities is immoral. The war on drugs restricts freedom to an unnecessary degree, and for that, it has failed.

As previously stated at the start of this essay, the first step to overcoming an addiction is admitting that there is a problem. Even before one can even consider an alternative to being addicted, one must recognize the problem. This is no different in the case of the drug war. The second step must follow the first step. If they second step is considering legalizing illicit drugs, then the first step must be admitting that the war on drugs has failed. It is my contention that the war on drugs has failed, and that it is high time that we consider alternative solutions to the drug problem.


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