The senior medical officers of two provinces are urging the federal government to scrap controversial mandatory minimum sentences and use scientific evidence to create drug policies that work.
Provincial Health Officer Perry Kendall of British Columbia and Chief Public Health Officer Robert Strang of Nova Scotia were the co-authors of an analysis published on Wednesday in the journal Open Medicine questioning Canada’s aggressive regulation of illicit drugs, an expensive pursuit that they say has been a dismal failure.
In short, it is time to stop treating illicit drug use as solely an issue of crime and look at it more as a serious health issue.
The two health officers say the central problem is that nearly all resources aimed at drug control are spent on policing, despite a lack of evidence that law enforcement and jail time have any effect on lowering the prevalence of illicit drug use. Rather than rethinking this approach, the federal government is encouraging the role of the legal system by introducing mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug offences, according to their article.
Mandatory minimums, which were included in the federal government’s omnibus crime bill passed this year, have become a lightning rod in Canada. The government and its supporters say the new measure will help crack down on crime, but critics say it will clog the jails and require massive spending on new incarceration facilities. Many law-enforcement experts in the United States, where mandatory minimums are being abandoned, say putting non-violent drug offenders in jail only exposes them to gang violence, criminal behaviour and other serious problems.
The government’s approach flies in the face of mounting evidence that focusing on social programs, such as opi*oid substitution therapies, improved access to mental-health and addiction counselling, and expanded treatment and withdrawal programs, can reduce the serious problems linked to drug use, the article states. There is also evidence that other moves, such as the regulation of the sale of marijuana, could reduce violence and other problems linked to use of the drug.
“I’m not soft on crime, I’m not pro-drug and I don’t want to legalize drugs,” Dr. Kendall said in an interview. “I just want to find a way that will better reduce the availability, access and use of these psychoactive substances with fewer unintended side effects.”
The side effects he is referring to include the spread of infectious diseases, such as HIV ( by addicts sharing needles ), overdoses, the spread of organized crime and other criminal behaviour.
The simple truth is that decades of battling the availability and use of illicit drugs have done little to address the problem, with ample evidence indicating that access to substances such as marijuana is easier than ever, the paper says.
There is an urgent need to look at new measures to reduce the harm associated with drug use, the authors argue. They say that when it comes to marijuana, Canada should consider the model used to control and tax the sale of tobacco and alcohol as a way to crack down on organized crime, control the availability of the drug and potentially “positively influence cultural norms related to drug use.”
For instance, research has shown that marijuana use is higher in the U.S., where it is illegal, than in the Netherlands, where the government allows the drug to be sold to adults in coffee shops.
Evan Wood, another one of the paper’s authors and co-director of the Urban Health Research Initiative at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, said it’s time to have a national discussion about revamping the country’s approach to drug control.
“The discordance between evidence and policy is just a frustrating quagmire when we know we could dramatically improve community health and safety if we took a more evidence-based approach,” Dr. Wood said.