TO DECRIMINALIZE THE USE OF DRUGS, PART 2 OF A SERIES
Ask police officers to guess how much drug traffic goes undetected, and many will roll their eyes. Whatever the benchmark -- the number of charges laid, the quantity of drugs seized, the property crimes committed to feed drug habits -- only a fraction of the full picture is ever visible.
Perhaps 5 per cent of the heroin, cocaine and designer drugs smuggled into this country each year is intercepted. A similarly dismal success rate probably applies to Canada's massive hydroponic marijuana industry, which each year dispatches hundreds of tonnes of the drug across our porous southern border.
The illegal-drug industry, in short, has become a behemoth. The United Nations calculates that globally it is worth up to $400-billion ( U.S ), an astonishing 8 per cent share of world trade. Estimates of Canada's share start at around $7-billion ( Cdn. ). At street level, the RCMP has placed the value of sales at about $18-billion.
As for the cost of chasing all those drugs, that too is guesswork. In the United States, the annual cost of paying for police, courts and imprisonment has been pegged at about $30-billion ( U.S. ); the price tag in Canada is probably about one-10th of that.
As most police will also tell you, those resources often end up being directed not at major-league drug dealers, but at much smaller fry and their customers far down the drug chain. Often such charges happen by chance -- incurred during the investigation of a driving offence, for instance, or a domestic dispute. Sometimes they happen by design, as in a police sweep through a drug-ravaged public housing complex.
But after the police leave that complex, the problem remains. Low-level drug sweeps are akin to stepping on a soft balloon; the dealers simply scurry elsewhere for a while. In the meantime, the individuals who have been netted will be on their way to court, and possibly prison, where they can learn new criminal skills.
That's not the entire picture. Toronto's special drug-diversion court, still one of a kind in Canada, strives with some success to spare hard-core non-violent drug users that prison experience, by substituting treatment and counselling. Yet all estimates are that this worthy program, to be emulated in Vancouver, Montreal and Ottawa, can do no more than scratch the surface.
What if the police had different marching orders? What if buying and using drugs, as opposed to selling them, were no longer a criminal offence, but were treated as a health issue and accorded all the necessary funding? What if simple drug possession were reclassified as a misdemeanour, regarded with the same seriousness as speeding or jaywalking? What if the long-term strategy were grounded in a blend of first-rate health care, drug education and community policing?
Law-enforcement priorities would change radically. Instead of arresting hapless drug-takers ( whose lives are often already difficult enough ), police could rechannel their resources into the vastly more meaningful task of catching the big players, including the organized crime figures who control much of the hydroponic marijuana trade.
Indeed, the sheer scale of that marijuana-export industry has already helped create such a shift. For several years, police in Canada have not been required to fingerprint pot possessors found with less than 30 grams. In some parts of the country, notably British Columbia's Lower Mainland, the tolerance goes further, with small-scale possession of marijuana and hashish routinely ignored by police or shrugged at by the courts. Elsewhere, such leniency remains patchwork, which is why thousands of marijuana-smoking Canadians still get saddled with criminal records each year.
The laissez-faire attitude toward cannabis possession offers a model that could be extended to all other drugs, including those much more dangerous than cannabis. Such a move would stir the accusation that the people most vulnerable to drugs were being abandoned to predatory drug dealers. Yet for those drug users who want to snort cocaine or inject heroin, the real hazards might be no greater than under the status quo. Why? Because most empirical evidence indicates that if a person really wants drugs, of whatever type, he or she will be able to get them.
If it is accepted that drugs are a social ill that can never be eradicated, the door opens to a much more selective brand of law enforcement than currently prevails. Drug dealers would remain subject to harsh, highly specific penalties. Plenty of them would be deterred from selling even small amounts of hard drugs to minors, for instance, if such an offence automatically meant a 10-year penitentiary term.
That said, there is no avoiding the possibility that decriminalizing personal drug use might lead to wider experimentation. We would argue, however, that for most drug users, greater damage is incurred through being arrested, fined and possibly imprisoned. A bad drug experience may last only a day or two. The same is not true of a criminal record, or of the lasting damage incarceration commonly inflicts.