British Columbia became the first province to be granted an exemption under the Drugs and Substances Control Act to remove criminal penalties for possession of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA for personal use.
This means that the police will no longer arrest, charge or seize drugs from adults found with 2.5 grams or less of these drugs. Instead, people with drugs will be offered information about available health and social services and help with referrals to access treatment if they prefer.
BC’s daring attempt to decriminalize “hard” drugs will be closely watched as a comparison with other progressive jurisdictions, such as Oregon and Portugal. Decriminalization in these places has been implemented differently, reflecting the characteristic circumstances and priorities that influence drug policy in different global contexts.
As a sociologist who has been studying drug policy development in Canada for almost 30 years, it is clear to me that decision making is a political process that is not based on facts alone. Drug policy reflects ideological commitments influenced by, and again influenced by, prevailing public notions and opinions about drugs. Exposure to the facts – which are also disputed – and constructive dialogue on social norms and values are needed to facilitate more meaningful debate.
Decriminalization of drug use is the realization of 50 years of policy discussions advocating for the removal of all penalties for small amounts of drugs. The so-called public health perspective is just beginning to materialize, despite extensive evidence that the war on drugs has failed. Rather, the research evidence supports the view that the ban on substance use was ineffective, costly, inhuman and harmful to the user and society.
Why so little progress for so long?
Canada has long pursued half measures by adopting a hybrid model that recognizes public health considerations within a legal framework that enforces bans. The LeDain Commission of Inquiry proposed in 1972 a gradual withdrawal of criminal penalties for possession of illegal drugs, phasing out imprisonment in favor of medical treatment.
The LeDain report predicted the emergence of drug policy with the aim of reducing harm and the need for more attention to the principles underlying drug policy debates. What is meant by “damage” has been controversial when determining the proper role of the law when defining police and politicians in ways that justify continued prohibition.
Ten years after the LeDain report, the entry into force of the Bill of Rights provided legal tools that complement more scientific evidence-based arguments for drug policy reform. However, the success of Charter-based legal challenges was largely limited to the abolition of the most heinous policing practices and penalties for drug crimes.
Substantial changes in the law could very well have been expected with the launch of Canada’s drug strategy in 1987. The language change was monumental: it covered the full spectrum of non-medical drug use, including legal drugs such as alcohol, prescription drugs and even solvents; and it points to an intention to take a new direction that has deviated dramatically from the war-against-drugs approach.
However, the implementation of the strategy was much less so. The police continued to order the bulk of the funding, despite the promise to pursue a “more balanced” and coherent public health approach to drug use.
Thirty-five years later, the situation has changed little. In 2018, after decades of debate, but little action indicating real commitment to reform, cannabis was legalized in Canada, changing its users from pariahs to responsible consumers. Users of more dangerous drugs are still treated differently, mainly because such use raises more concerns about crime control than protecting health.
Lessons from other jurisdictions
In Oregon, the lack of full commitment to a public health approach explains the “mixed results.” US-style decriminalization there has been adopted as a social justice tool to mitigate the impact of policing on marginalized communities.
In 2020, Oregon voters approved a ballot measure to decriminalize hard drugs as a way to keep addicts out of jail and get them into treatment. Possession of controlled drugs is now a “violation” with a maximum fine of US $ 100. The fine is waived if the offender calls a hotline for assessment, which may result in them receiving treatment.
After the first year, however, only one percent used the hotline, and nearly half did not show up at court, which drew criticism that the system was too lenient.
Portugal’s adoption of decriminalization measures has been implemented more successfully, in part because its social safety net is much more comprehensive and better integrated with the criminal justice system.
Portugal’s approach is both more powerful and nuanced, recognizing that most drug use is “low risk” and requires no intervention. The vast majority of cases referred by the police are considered non-problematic and the charges are suspended. Those who have a pattern of repeated offenses may be issued fines or counseling appointments offered. Drug addiction and abuse in high-risk cases more often cause a referral for non-compulsory treatment.
Portugal’s adoption of a graduate system of intervention demonstrates a view consistent with coherent harm reduction policy development. Drug use is treated as a health issue. And the proof is in the pudding. Since these measures were introduced in 2001, drug-related deaths and drug use rates have remained below the European Union average. The rates of HIV infection due to injecting drug use, and incarceration for committing drug offenses, have also been dramatically reduced.
Canada’s acceptance of a public health perspective on substance use is hampered by its failure to address the inconsistencies inherent in its biased approach. Implementing harm reduction within a prohibition framework perversely criminalizes people who are recognized as needing help.
BC’s daring experiment provides an opportunity to implement more balance in Canadian drug policy, and a more principled withdrawal from the war on drugs. Much can be learned from other places to decide the way forward, and the world is waiting for new lessons to be learned.