In 2017, it’s safe to say that a majority of Canadians probably agree that the “war on drugs” is a failure.
Even with the war in its forty-sixth year, it’s not like anybody out for a night on the town has to look very hard to find cocaine.
Yet all three levels of governments across North America continue to spend exorbitant sums of taxpayer dollars enforcing drug laws.
If you think those sorts of police actions are a waste of money, or if you don’t think that citizens should spend the next 20 years stuck with a criminal record for selling a plant that the government is in the process of legalizing, there’s a demonstration happening today (June 26) that you might want to attend.
At 4 p.m., Vancouver residents will gather at Victory Square at the corner of West Hastings and Cambie streets to voice their opposition to the war on drugs.
“This event is focused on reminding the public about the brutality of the drug war, and its dire consequences,” reads a media release sent out by the Canadian Association of People of Who Use Drugs (CAPUD). “These consequences are no more evident than in British Columbia, which is experiencing a worsening overdose epidemic that kills approximately 4 people per day.”
The Vancouver event is part of a series of protests happening the same day around the globe.
“By the United Nations’ own admission, the ‘war on drugs’ has failed to reduce drug use and has led to serious negative consequences—such as overdose deaths, HIV and hepatitis C infections among people who use drugs, prison over-crowding, severe human rights violations, and an exacerbation of stigma, marginalisation, violence and corruption,” the release continues.
“This is the fifth Global Day of Action, and the biggest ever global show of force in support for drug policy reform. It demonstrates the growing recognition around the world that a repressive approach towards drugs has failed.”
The CAPUD event is organized in cooperation with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP).
Here’s a sample of quotes from just the past year or so:
Terry Lake, outgoing health minister of British Columbia: “I’m not the justice minister, I’m not the attorney-general, so I don’t want to speak for them, but I would say that we have recognized over the years that the war on drugs has largely been a failure....And I think all levels of government are recognizing that, so let’s put a public health lens on this, treat it as a health and social issue that we need to manage … I think there’s a general movement in that direction.” (Reported in the Globe and Mail on April 21, 2016.)
Dr. Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer and vice president of public health for Vancouver Coastal Health: “Personally, I think we need to be thinking about the decriminalization of drug use and perhaps having legal options for all drug users, including opioid drug users, so that they don’t have to go to the illicit drug market for their addiction.” (Reported in the Globe and Mail on April 21, 2016.)
Don Davies, NDP MLA for Vancouver Kingsway: “I think we are at the point, as a country, where we can start opening a dialogue about finding a better method of distributing drugs, legally, to those who are addicted to them so that we can avoid the unnecessary death, destruction, and crime that is so clearly associated with the current model [prohibition].” (Reported in the Georgia Straight on January 18, 2017.)
Dr. Hedy Fry, Liberal MP for Vancouver Centre: “This is the discourse that we must have now. Nobody is ramming anything down anybody’s throats. I’m not saying, ‘Let’s legalize.’ But I am saying, ‘It’s time we discussed this, openly and publicly.’” (Reported in the Georgia Straight on February 8, 2017.)
Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has said, however, that he has no intention of legalizing hard drugs.
“I disagree with loosening any of the prohibition on harder drugs,” Trudeau said while campaigning in March 2015. “I think that there is much that we can and should be doing around harm reduction. Insite is a great model of that, and I certainly want to see more safe injection sites opened around the country. And I am firm on the fact marijuana needs to be controlled and regulated and that prohibition isn’t working. But I’m not in favour of loosening restrictions on harder drugs.”
A number of additional B.C. politicians have floated the idea of legalizing drugs as a response to the fentanyl crisis that could save lives.
For example, Sam Sullivan, Liberal MLA for Vancouver-False Creek, has said that if people addicted to drugs could obtain heroin via a source that is regulated, they wouldn’t have to risk buying unknown substances that might contain fentanyl or its even more deadly cousin, carfentanil.
“I do believe that we would solve a lot of problems,” he told the Straight last February. "Legalization with strict regulation.
“When you have a product that is regulated and when people know what is in it, that will be safer for everybody,” Sullivan added.
During the first four months of 2017, 488 people in British Columbia died of an illicit drug overdose. That puts the province on track for more than 1,450 deaths by the end of this year. (For context, from 2001 to 2010, B.C. saw an average of 204 fatal overdoses per year.)
Asked what difference he thought it could have made if drugs were legal, Sullivan replied: “Most of those people would probably be alive right now."