Canada's war on drugs bucks the global trend

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      Since founding the Vancouver Island Compassion Society 10 years ago, Philippe Lucas has seen changes in the way countries around the world deal with drug users. As recently as August 20, for example, Mexico decriminalized the possession for personal use of substances like marijuana, cocaine, heroin, LSD, and methamphetamine. Five days later, Argentina’s Supreme Court declared unconstitutional legislation that punishes possessors of marijuana with prison sentences ranging from one month to two years.

      Elsewhere in Latin America, according to Lucas, a first-term Victoria city councillor, countries like Colombia and Peru have set aside policies that regard drug use as a criminal offence.

      “We’re seeing Canada and the U.S. increasingly isolated in the maintenance of a prohibition-based policy,” Lucas told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “Within the western world, we see examples of very successful alternatives to a law-and-order approach to substance abuse. The best recent examples are Portugal and Spain.”

      Lucas recently retired as executive director of the Vancouver Island Compassion Society, a nonprofit organization that provides cannabis to terminally and chronically ill people.

      Lucas, a graduate student in UVic’s policy-and-practice program and a research fellow with the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C., noted that prohibitionist policies persist in North America despite the absence of evidence of success, particularly in terms of public health.

      This is in sharp contrast to the experience in Portugal, which the Washington, D.C.–based Cato Institute examined in a detailed report released last April. Since decriminalization in 2001, lifetime prevalence rates, which measure how many people have consumed a particular drug or drugs in their lifetime, have decreased among youth, the think tank noted in Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies. For Portuguese aged 13 to 15 years, the rate fell from 14.1 percent in 2001 to 10.6 percent in 2006. Among those aged 16 to 18, the rate dropped from 27.6 percent to 21.6 percent.

      With the fear of criminal punishment gone, more addicts have availed themselves of drug-substitution treatments. The number of people accessing these services rose from 6,040 in 1999 to 14,877 in 2003, an increase of 147 percent.

      Drug-related deaths declined, from about 400 in 1999 to 290 in 2006, while newly reported HIV cases among drug users in Portugal diminished from nearly 1,400 in 2000 to about 400 six years later. New AIDS cases among the same group dropped from about 600 in 2000 to approximately 200 in 2006.

      The percentage of drug addicts among newly diagnosed HIV and AIDS patients decreased over the same time. In 2001, HIV-positive drug users accounted for more than 50 percent of new HIV cases; this fell to 30 percent in 2006. Addicts diagnosed with AIDS made up almost 60 percent of AIDS patients in 2001; their percentage was cut to less than 40 percent in 2006.

      The Cato Institute report notes that decriminalization in Portugal applies to purchase and possession for personal consumption. The allowable personal-use amount is defined as the average quantity sufficient for 10 days’ usage by one person.

      In conversation, Lucas noted that although B.C., and Vancouver in particular, have a reputation for being liberal on drug use, they have the highest rate of drug-related arrests in Canada. “Out of those high rates of drug arrests, 80 percent are for personal possession—they’re not for trafficking—and 60 percent of the overall arrests are cannabis-related,” he said.

      Lucas will speak at a drug-policy conference to be held at the SFU Burnaby campus from Friday to Sunday (October 23 to October 25). Organized by Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the event will also feature presentations from harm-reduction activist Mark Haden, UVic professor Susan Boyd, Victoria police officer and antiprohibition activist David Bratzer, author and physician Gabor Maté, medical-marijuana activist Rielle Capler, lawyer Kirk Tousaw, and Insite researcher Dr. Evan Wood.

      The conference is being held in the shadow of Bill C-15, a controversial piece of drug legislation passed by the House of Commons in June. Currently awaiting concurrence from the Senate, the proposed law seeks to impose mandatory prison sentences on people caught with illicit substances.

      CSSDP director Caleb Chepesiuk is one of the organizers of the conference. A graduate student of legal studies at Ottawa’s Carleton University, he noted that although U.S. federal policy remains firmly rooted in prohibition, a number of American states, such as Massachusetts and California, are looking at ways to legally regulate marijuana.

      “What it says about Canada is that we’re totally ignoring these trends,” Chepesiuk told the Straight by phone. “We’re doing things like imposing mandatory minimum sentences. We’re increasing prison budgets for more prisoners while other countries are looking at ways to decrease spending on prisons.”

      This weekend’s conference would have had a place for marijuana activist Marc Emery. On September 28, however, Vancouver’s so-called Prince of Pot turned himself in to Canadian authorities to await extradition to the U.S., where he will serve up to five years in prison for selling cannabis seeds.

      Emery is being held at the North Fraser Pretrial Centre, where he will spend time until Conservative justice minister Rob Nicholson signs the extradition order, Emery’s wife, Jodie, informed the Straight.

      For details on the drug-policy conference, visit




      Oct 22, 2009 at 9:09am

      Since alcohol is far, far more deadly and dangerous than cannabis, laws that discriminate against cannabis users are a violence producing piece of garbage. Sorry, but the law is not allowed to be that hypocritical (Says who?- In America, says the pledge of allegiance). Laws that makes alcohol users the lords and masters of cannabis users will get exactly as much respect as they deserve.


      Oct 22, 2009 at 10:47am

      Crime in Canada is at its lowest rate Ever! Now the Harperites want to double spending for prisons. We can not let that happen. Vote ABC Anyone BUT Conservative.


      Oct 22, 2009 at 3:27pm

      Marc Emery and his wife are such drama king and queen - they had the balls to blatantly break the law and now seem to expect not to be treated as common criminals they are.


      Oct 22, 2009 at 4:32pm

      The most lethal and widely abused drug of all: Junk Food

      These fat, salt, sugar and chemical laden substances are pschologically addictive. They are mood altering and responsible for, along with tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceuticals, the out of control cost of health care.

      Pete Quily

      Oct 22, 2009 at 4:40pm

      Drugs should be treated as a medical and social issue, if they're not treated at that level it can become a criminal issue but that's not where we should start or focus most of our resources.

      But many people who use drugs have mental health conditions that they're using drugs to self medicate.

      Worse the BC govt is unwilling to spend the money to actually diagnose these conditions.

      For example 8% of children & 5% of adults have ADHD, yet if you look at peer reviewed clinical journals people with ADHD are massively over represented among drug users. Here's 5 summaries of clinical studies on ADHD & drug abuse

      35% of Cocaine Abusers had ADHD

      24% of Psychoactive Substance Abusers had ADHD

      32% of Cocaine Users and Alcoholics had ADHD

      70% of Crystal Meth (Methamphetamine) Inpatients had ADHD

      83% of Inhalant Abusers and 55% of Methamphetamine abusers in Japan had ADHD.

      details here

      As an adult ADHD coach, I get constant complaints that it's hard to find a doctor/psychiatrist/psychologist who knows enough about ADHD to be able to properly diagnose it because it's not properly taught in medical schools.

      The BC Adult ADHD clinic at children's hospital was the only public clinic for ADHD adults in the province, it quickly developed a 1 year wait list for an entire year & the BC govt decided to shut it down. So no political embarrassing wait list.

      Hopefully some people will contact the Kevin Falcon the BC health minister

      and ask him to implement the BCMA's recommendations for ADHD in their policy paper

      It's one thing to use drugs out of personal choice. It's very different to use drugs because you're self medicating a mental health condition you have that the BC govt can't be bothered to gave adequate resources for diagnosis let alone actual treatment

      Pete Quily
      Adult ADD Coach


      Oct 22, 2009 at 4:51pm

      This article is not about Marc Emery or his wife... except in the peripheral sense that the passage of Bill-C-15 shows that the Harperites believe it is "good politics" to show how punitive they are when it comes to drugs; extraditing Emery is part of the same mindset and policy. A "war on drugs" is an idea imported from the U.S. (Bush-era). Nothing to be proud of - and not an idea with much of a future.

      I would have been interested in comments about the likely prospects of Bill C-15... will it lead quickly to a Supreme Court challenge? Is it just another Conservative exercise in futility in the realm of public morals? However perhaps another article, covering the Burnaby conference, will deal with such considerations.

      It sounds like a fascinating conference.


      Oct 22, 2009 at 5:15pm

      You would not be suggesting a law forbidding junk food would you sleeps? Surely you would not be prepared to support an introduction of legislation or regulation to junk food.


      Oct 22, 2009 at 10:58pm

      You betcha Satan. When the trucks stop rolling and the store shelves are empty, it will be too late...lock up fat people now...put them on 500 calorie/day diets. 5 years for possession of doughnuts with intent to gobble. Selling mystery (or any) meat should warrant a shoot on site order. 50 lashes with a brine soaked whip for even thinking about ice cream.

      Of course technology will have to advance sufficiently in order to satisfy my sadistic but oh so prescient vision of the not too distant future.

      I can see it now: Hello, my name is Sleeps and I'll be flogging you's your unsalted cracker, you can have another one tonight.

      But seriously. Dairy, Deep Fried, Processed Wheat and other fatty, sugary, salty foods have been engineered to not just compromise peoples' health and send them to doctors who then prescribe dangerous pharmaceuticals....they have also been engineered to make people docile and vulnerable to whatever propaganda Uncle Sam, or his minions, wants them to swallow without question. Like pot users should be jailed and it's ok to condemn millions to die in the middle east by exploding depleted uranium weapons.

      Where's my knotted whip? Our PM looks like he just ate a smallish deep fried pig.


      Oct 23, 2009 at 12:36am

      the criminal justice system desperately needs illegal drug users to feed can no longer prosecute homosexuals,communists,vagrants etc and is running out of 'threats' to society that justify the billions wasted on these parasites,society's real criminals.time to start closing prisons and shutting down police forces.after all,if they were doing their job,we would have progressively less need for their services.ditto doctors,lawyers,politicians et al. regards cam p.s. hi beez

      Bruce Elniski

      Oct 23, 2009 at 9:00am

      I support the legalization of all drugs. We need to TRUST people and give them the freedom to enjoy euphoria, pain-relief and normal social experimentation. People are not stupid and will not turn themselves into addicts just because they can. Only in a climate of legalization, acceptance and decent regulation will be be able to help those who need and want help.
      We do not need to manufacture criminals, which is exactly what the drug laws do. Great for the prison business and very very bad for everyone else.