Decriminalizing drug possession for personal use

Decriminalizing drug possession for personal use

Canada’s decision to legalize marijuana in 2017 marks a stark break from the country’s zero-tolerance drug policy and has prompted discussion about further liberalization. To minimize drug-related deaths, disease and crime, possession of small amounts of all drugs should be treated as a public-health issue, not a criminal one.

Drugs and crime tied

Drugs and crime are tied. Without adequate education, regulation and treatment opportunities, illicit drugs are abused and often act as a catalyst for crime. Many of those found guilty have committed crimes to get drugs or were high when committing the offence. Others are found guilty of offences relating to the sale, importation, cultivation or possession of drugs. (See “Drug Use, Crime, and Incarceration.“)

The reality is that more drug users are in jails than in treatment programs. Inmates with no history of drug use often become users in prison, and without adequate resources to help addicts, ex-inmates tend to reoffend. Research suggests a strong link between poverty, lack of education and unemployment on the one hand and drug abuse on the other. Locking people up for drug use perpetuates poverty and disadvantage because it punishes rather than treats addiction. If possession of small amounts of drugs is legalized, policymakers can better focus on treatment and education.

Treating possession for personal use as a public-health issue rather than a crime has produced positive results elsewhere.

Portugal decriminalizes possession

Consider Portugal. In 2001, criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of illicit drugs were eliminated. Rather than face arrest, anyone found with up to a gram of heroin, ecstasy, or amphetamine, two grams of cocaine, or 25 grams of pot is ordered to appear before a “dissuasion panel” usually made up of a lawyer, a social worker and a doctor.

First-time offenders whose drug use is deemed recreational account for upwards of 85 per cent of all people who report to the panels. Their cases are suspended. Those repeatedly caught or identified as addicts can be referred to voluntary treatment or education programs, fined or ordered to do community service.

Meanwhile, drugs remain illegal and drug growers, dealers, and traffickers can still be incarcerated.

Fewer overdoses and HIV/AIDS cases

Portugal’s drug policy has paid off:

• Fewer people arrested and jailed for drug offences: in 2013 a 60 per cent drop was noted in the number of those arrested and criminally charged and a decrease of about 20 per cent in the number of people imprisoned

• Levels of drug use are below the European average

• Drug use has declined among those aged 15-24, the population most at risk of initiating drug use, according to a 2012 report by the Transform Drug Policy Foundation (TDPF)

• Rates of continuation of drug use (i.e. the proportion of the population that have tried an illicit drug and continue to do so) have decreased, the TDPF report found

• More people getting drug treatment: an increase of more than 60 per cent between 1998 and 2011

• Reduced incidence of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C among intravenous drug users, as needle exchange programs have replaced dirty needles: e.g., 56 new HIV/AIDS cases were reported in 2012 down from 1,016 in 2001

• Sharp drop in drug overdose deaths from 80 the year of decriminalization to 16 in 2012 due in part to opioid substitution therapy using drugs like methadone and buprenorphine

• Reduced social cost of drug abuse: according to a 2015 study, the per capita social cost has fallen by 18 per cent

Price of street drugs drops

Further, the price of street drugs has dropped apparently due to reduced demand, Caitlyn Hughes and Alex Stevens reported in 2010. Cheaper street drugs make trafficking less profitable.

Further benefits: otherwise law-abiding citizens are not criminalized for possessing illegal drugs and police have more resources to address real crimes and focus on catching large-scale traffickers.

Portugal’s health-oriented approach to drug use that emphasizes treatment over punishment reflects the common sense recognition that drug abuse and addiction are medical and psychological problems best solved by the individual with the help of professionals – not by police. Only by liberalizing our own drug policy can we truly address drug abuse among Canadians and minimize its effects.

Mr. Torgov recently finished a B.A. in Political Science at Queen’s University