In the early 2010s, a group called Stop the Violence B.C. responded to an increase in gang violence across Metro Vancouver with a campaign to legalize and regulate cannabis.
The prohibition of marijuana was creating an economic incentive for gang violence, their thinking went. Therefore, laws that forbid marijuana were doing more harm than any consumption of the plant itself.
By 2015, the federal Liberal party had adopted the same position, and now the government is scheduled to legalize and regulate cannabis before the end of this summer.
Dr. Evan Wood was a vocal member of Stop the Violence and today holds the position of director of the B.C. Centre on Substance Use. In a telephone interview, he said there’s talk about getting Stop the Violence back together, this time to advocate for the legalization and regulation of all drugs.
“There really needs to be a conversation that moves beyond just cannabis,” Wood told the Straight. “A conversation needs to be had on the question of fentanyl, acknowledging that fentanyl is a natural consequence of prohibition.”
Wood described a phenomenon called the “iron law of prohibition”.
“Originally, there was opium, a natural product from the poppy plant that was not nearly as toxic as heroin,” he began. As authorities cracked down on opium, innovation led criminal organizations to shift to heroin because it was more potent, less bulky, and therefore easier to smuggle past authorities. Next, America’s “war on drugs” made it increasingly risky to cultivate the poppy fields required for heroin production. “So we discovered that you can make opioids without actually growing a poppy, that we can synthesize it [fentanyl] in a laboratory,” Wood concluded.
According to the B.C. Coroners Service, there were 1,436 fatal overdoses across B.C. last year, and fentanyl was associated with 83 percent of them. That compares to an average of 204 deaths for the years 2001 to 2010, a period when fentanyl was not present in B.C.’s illicit-drug markets.
“The B.C. Centre on Substance Use is interested in advancing a conversation where we start looking at the harms of prohibition,” Wood said. “There obviously needs to be a conversation about what the return on investment is for the taxpayer.”
Geoff Plant was also a member of Stop the Violence as well as serving as B.C.’s attorney general from 2001 to 2005. “Why is it time to think about this again?” Plant asked. “Because of the carnage caused by the fentanyl-opioid crisis, and the recognition that here again we have an area of public policy where criminalization is a failure.”
Plant told the Straight there’s no question that legalizing and regulating hard drugs like cocaine and heroin would be “more complicated” than marijuana. But he suggested that there is an experiment already underway from which we can learn about what effects legalization could have on illicit markets.
“We’ll find out a little bit about that when we legalize cannabis,” Plant noted. “And, hopefully, we’ll learn something about how to do it better.”More