Saturday, June 6, 2009

Crackdowns won't work. Decriminalize Drugs.

Drug users, like most normal people, would prefer not to go to prison. Cracking down on drugs or locking up petty offenders is expensive, and won't solve the problem.

Drug users need help, not jail time, but Laws that would punish them drive them away from the help that they need. If they ask for help, they have to admit they use drugs, which opens them up to the possibility of prosecution.

In order to provide drug users the help they need, a good first step would be to quit threatening to lock them up. That strategy keeps them both hidden and addicted.

Decriminalizing the drugs, which will remain illegal, eliminates the risk of jail time, which encourages people to seek help. Financially, the money that would have gone to incarcerate drug users goes instead to helping them clean themselves up.

This would all sound like a delightful fantasy, if we weren't being led by example: Portugal.

Portugal decriminalized consumption and possession for personal use of all types of drugs on July 1, 2001. Its strategy is based on "containing and reducing the negative effects of substance abuse"*. 

Instead of a jailor, people were sent to a panel consisting of a psychologist, a social worker, and a legal advisor who determine how they can best help the drug user with their problems. 

According to a Cato institute report, drug use and HIV infections from needles dropped while people seeking treatment doubled. Decriminalization does not appear to result in increased drug use.

What does this mean for Canadians? A hard line on this kind of crime would run counter to actually solving the problem. If you reduce drug use by decriminalization and counseling, it would follow that other crimes that accompany drug use would decline as well.

As a country, we will be much farther ahead if we help these people work through their problems rather than lock them up. It's time for a rethink on national drug policy.

*Rand Monograph Report: Guidelines for Implementing and Evaluating the Portuguese Drug Strategy

Time did a piece on this recently as well.


  1. This column appeared in the June 8 2009 issue of the Gabriola Sounder, and generated 3 letters to the editor. I will include them here as separate comments. Enjoy!

  2. Dear Editor,

    Please consider publishing the following brief letter:

    There is a middle ground between drug prohibition and blanket
    legalization. Switzerland's heroin maintenance program has been shown to
    reduce disease, death and crime among chronic users. The Swiss program
    has inspired heroin maintenance pilot projects in Canada, Germany, Spain,
    Denmark and the Netherlands. If expanded, prescription heroin maintenance
    would deprive organized crime of a core client base. This would render
    illegal heroin trafficking unprofitable and spare future generations

    Marijuana should be taxed and regulated like alcohol, only without the
    ubiquitous advertising. Separating the hard and soft drug markets is
    critical. As long as organized crime controls marijuana distribution,
    consumers will continue to come into contact with addictive drugs like
    cocaine and heroin. Simply put, marijuana prohibition opens up a gateway
    to hard drugs. Drug policy reform may send the wrong message to children,
    but I like to think the children are more important than the message.

    Please feel free to edit and publish. Thank you for your consideration.

    For information on the efficacy of heroin maintenance please read the
    following British Medical Journal report:

    To learn more about Canada's heroin maintenance research please visit:

    Robert Sharpe, MPA
    Policy Analyst
    Common Sense for Drug Policy

  3. To the Editor,
    As a retired Michigan police detective, I heartily agree with your suggestion to decriminalize personal possession of all drugs. Chasing adult citizens who simply use drugs has always reduced public safety, as my profession arrests fewer drunk drivers & child molesters in order to catch pot smokers.

    Besides the Portugal experience, Mexico last month quietly decriminalized the simple possession of all drugs. Canada should follow Mexico and Portugal. Become a lighthouse to the rest of North America.
    Officer Howard Wooldridge (retired)
    Founding LEAP Member - Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (
    Washington, DC
    Howard J. Wooldridge

  4. To The Editor, RE: Crackdowns Won't Work. Decriminalize Drugs.

    The government's recent move to increase penalties and impose mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes is designed specifically to increase crime.

    These mandatory sentences will scare off the mom-'n'-pop pot growers, who present direct market competition to the gangsters. With the little guys out of the game, the big guys will get more business and more profit. This will lead to more violence, which the police and government will use as justification for even more draconian laws, more police with bigger budgets and more powers, and further suppression of our civil rights and liberties.

    The whole thing is a scam designed to make it necessary to hire more cops, build more jails, and spend more taxpayers' dollars on a policy which further subsidizes organized crime. The media-addled public is being duped once again.

    Russell Barth
    Federally Licensed Medical Marijuana User
    Patients Against Ignorance and Discrimination on Cannabis

  5. Special thanks to Derek and Sarah at the Gabriola Sounder for running the column and providing the letters to the editor for use here.