Continuing to criminalize substance abuse wrong

By Pat Watson Saturday April 28 2012 in Opinion
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The leaders of Canada and the U.S. have stepped away from a more enlightened approach on illegal drugs, holding instead to failed policies that have criminalized millions and caused drug wars throughout the Americas and the Caribbean.



Forty years on, the U.S. War on Drugs is a failure, so U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s rejection during the recent Summit of the Americas in Columbia of decriminalization of certain opiates is a disappointment.



Arguably, one of the major problems with certain controlled or illegal chemicals is their legislated illegality which has made many into criminals.



We need look no further than Mexican cities that border the U.S. such as Juarez and Tijuana that have become war zones as cartels fight for control of the export market to the U.S.



America’s War on Drugs is as responsible for the devastating carnage as the desire for profit of the drug cartels.



It’s not as if history has not already proved the failure of similar tactics. Canada’s and America’s ill-conceived prohibition on alcohol during the 1920s did not stop alcohol consumption and in fact made Canadian families like the Bronfmans, the Labatts and the Carlings filthy rich from the transportation of spirits across the border into the U.S.



The problem with alcohol abuse during that era was not easy access to alcohol, it was the increasing dislocation of families as the economy moved away from the familiarity of a farming economy into the kind of soul sapping demands of industrialization that still stress out so many of us today.

How many people in today’s economy leave a long day of work to ‘zone out’ at home with a legal opiate – maybe a beer or three – or something that is not legal?



What the so-called war on drugs does is make people involved in the underground drug trade, either by selling it or by using it, into criminals. This is so especially for low-level participants. People at the top are rarely swept up by the criminal justice system.



It needs to be said again that for the casual user of drugs the main problem is its illegality. Alcohol and tobacco are legal. Why then criminalize other similar substances when the main effect is that doing so is a drain on resources both in funding and personnel to police what for most is a recreational activity.



For the fraction that falls into the realm of substance abuse or addiction, governments choose a law enforcement response to health issues. In the same kind of failure of response, persons with mental illness are too frequently put into jail instead of a health facility.



Toronto just rejected setting up a safe site to dispense drugs to addicts. Yet, a safe site is a form of intervention and a way to get addicts to limit or stabilize their use of medications on which they have become dependent. Not to mention curbing the spread of blood-borne diseases.



This is, at least in part, a solution to a problem driven by social alienation that arises especially from living in today’s urban settings.



If the problem is that we are leaning too much on stereotypes of who the drug abusers are, then we should bear in mind that there are more doctors who are using drugs as opiates than the general population.



Adding a more punitive response in this so-called War on Drugs will never solve this problem. Dealing with this public health problem will require policymakers to shift their focus from punishment to treatment. They need to be looking at what is at the core of the need for opiates: a complex of social, emotional, psychological, economic and spiritual proportions.



Somehow, lawmakers have decided that the greater focus should be on drug pushers as ‘bad guys’ rather than on supporting the kind of social-economic engineering that would make the escape into substance abuse less alluring. That would take a lot more doing, however.



As long as the main response is criminalization and jail, we will have a ‘drug problem’.



A note on campaigning for all the people…

It has become standard for any person from a visible minority group running for political office to declare he or she is running to represent all the constituents. Not something one usually hears from mainstream pols. That is, until Alberta’s Wild Rose candidate Ron Leech declared himself during an interview on a multicultural radio station. Leech stated, “I think, as a Caucasian, I have an advantage. When different community leaders, such as a Sikh leader or a Muslim leader speaks, they really speak to their own people in many ways. As a Caucasian, I believe that I can speak to all the community.”


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