TO DECRIMINALIZE THE USE OF DRUGS, PART 4
Fast-forward a few years.
Back in 2002, the Canadian government astonished much of the world by plucking up the courage to drastically redefine the nation's drug strategy.
Under the new laws, shortly to be re-evaluated by voters after a five-year trial period, a clear distinction has been drawn between using drugs and selling them. Now, with personal drug use decriminalized but not legalized, you may visit your neighbourhood drug dealer, buy enough for your own needs and go your way, secure in the knowledge that you risk no more than a small fine, should the drug squad be in a bad mood that evening.
Unless they know you, however, the operators of that drug house will be wary. In this new landscape, selling drugs of all types, including cannabis, remains a criminal offence.
And as part of the long-term goal of reducing drug use, especially among the young, the penalties for selling drugs have also been revisited.
Sell anything more than an ounce of pot and you risk a stiff fine, with penalties rising sharply according to quantity.
Sell a bag of heroin and you will go to prison.
Sell that same bag of heroin to a minor and your prison spell will last 10 years.
Import kilograms of cocaine or ecstasy and you will get life.
The perennially vexing question of supply stirred huge debate back in 2002. Many contended that part of the solution lay in the creation of licensed, police-patrolled retail outlets, much along the lines of the Netherlands' famously colourful coffee houses and "smart shops," which openly sell cannabis and organic stimulants. But there would be a major problem with doing that, the government pointed out: international treaty obligations. Along with most other countries, Canada is a signatory to the 1988 United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs, which bars the sale of illegal drugs, itemized in a long list.
Buying and possessing those drugs is also banned under that convention. But because no criminal penalty is specified, the government had room to manoeuvre.
Inspired by the recent examples of such countries as Italy and Spain, Ottawa decided to downgrade the seriousness with which Canada regarded simple drug possession. Nothing was legalized.
Instead, buying and using drugs was reclassified as a simple misdemeanour.
Waves of hostility had rolled north from the United States, and from critics at home, who complained Canada was following neither the spirit nor the letter of that 1988 convention. But the government's response -- that the new framework was a compromise between international obligations and changing domestic priorities -- prevailed.
Now, a few years later, that uproar has diminished. Drug use of all kinds appears to have risen slightly, but for the most part police ignore it, concentrating instead on denting the major supply lines, still mostly controlled by organized crime.
Police still deal every day with small-scale drug users, but their emphasis is now mostly on prevention and help, working closely with social agencies and the schools.
As a result, the tide of low-level drug prosecutions that used to choke the court system has all but vanished. The prison population is down, too.
Drug-education programs have been revamped. Students are told from an early age that if they want to buy drugs, they can do so without fear of being arrested.
But there are persuasive reasons not to do so, they learn.
Topping the list is that drug use, all drug use, tends to make people stupid rather than smart.
Treating addiction has changed, too. Along with decriminalizing drug use back in 2002, the government conducted a comprehensive survey of drug addiction in Canada and poured money into an expensive network of programs and clinics. With the fear of prosecution removed, far more drug abusers came forward than expected, and the client lists at the clinics are long. However, big savings in other areas, notably domestic law-enforcement, are already apparent. Some of those savings are reallocated into increasingly successful multinational drug investigations. And because street-level drug users are now much less nervous about talking to police, those big investigations are aided by a wealth of useful tips.
All of the above, of course, is a fantasy.
Is decriminalizing simple drug use either feasible or desirable? On both counts we would argue yes. But without the political will to grasp this nettle, which is nowhere in sight, it won't happen soon. Policy issues would arise that could be answered only through vigorous public debate.
The largest of those questions would involve our children.
Illegal drugs reach into every corner of our society and cause enormous damage, it would repeatedly be said. How can easing access to them possibly be justified?
The best answer can be found at almost any high school.
Like them or hate them, drugs already swirl all around us. Ask any teenager. The "war on drugs," first proclaimed by presidential candidate Richard Nixon in 1968, has ultimately proved as futile and destructive as Prohibition.
The only alternative is damage control -- harm reduction, and not merely in a strictly physical sense. Every sociologist knows that the more a person is exposed to crime, arrest and imprisonment, the worse his or her long-term prospects. Decriminalizing simple drug use would reduce that exposure significantly.
Such a radical move, fraught with uncertainty, offers no simple antidote to the drugs plague. But two, five or 10 years hence, the results might be a lot better than what we see around us now.