What if psychoactive drugs were legal in Canada?

This op-ed is part of a series inspired by CUSJ’s resolution to explore ways to reform Canada’s criminal justice system.

What if psychoactive drugs were legal in Canada? No need to wonder what would happen–we have only to look to countries like Portugal and New Zealand , which have legalized psychoactive drugs. Here’s the scoop: Crime would decrease: drug lords would shrug and move away to places where business is better. Mentally ill people who have been self-medicating would get help… Those marginalized by society, ditto. And that is just the beginning.

There would be economic benefits as well! In controlling the source of psychoactive substances, our government would be shifting the profits from gangs and the mafia to government coffers. A power transfer would occur too, leaving drug lords suddenly disenfranchised, as the market moved from the shady realm of the criminal into the transparent world of legality and government. In Colorado, marijuana is available in the form of chocolates and other gourmet treats—something with which the traditional weed-hidden-in-a-sock (or whereever), garden-variety dealers cannot compete.

Public funds currently directed to seeking out and arresting people for possession could be directed to treatment and prevention programs.

Cannabis is the good test case, since it is the most widely accepted of all psychoactive drugs. And it is coming to Canada. When I first heard of Justin Trudeau’s plan to decriminalize marijuana, I scoffed at it as a blatant, self-interested attempt to buy votes by appealing to youthful voters. (Which it probably was—but my point is, that is not the whole story!)

The Canadian Drug Policy Coalition’s report , published before the 2015 federal election, calls repeatedly for the legalization of marijuana and other drugs. It tells us that illegal cannabis is a major problem in Canada. With the legalization of cannibis, which seems likely to happen by July 2018 , Canada will be joining US states like Alaska, California, Colorado, Oregon, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Washington, and countries like Uruguay and Jamaica, where cannabis for recreational use is already legal.

Word has it that legalizing cannabis results in a better quality, safer, product, and one can surmise that the same would be true of other psychoactive substances.

However, some will object that since legal drugs would be more readily available, and cheaper, wouldn’t more people be likely to try them? The answer is, not entirely, since the consumers of legalized drugs would be a different demographic, less vulnerable to abusive patterns, than the marginalized, sometimes mentally ill demographic that tends now to use illegal substances. And, the latter would have a chance to get education, health care, and help to move away from drug use, which is manifestly not bringing any joy into their lives.

It is worth noting the distinction between decriminalization—where substances are still illegal, but possession does not result in a criminal penalty–and all-out legalization. Decriminalization is a viable strategy, because it is less contentious and easier to realize than the next step: Legalization of psychoactive substances.

In fact, decriminalization is the norm in most of the wealthier countries now. Here is a table that compares what happens in a society that criminalizes drugs, and one that tries a different approach.

Criminalization of drugs Decriminalization or legalization
Creates an illegal black market Creates a new revenue source for government
Fosters violence and corruption in drug-producing countries Makes the world a safer, more peaceful, place
Stops only a small proportion of drug activity Creates a market solution in which the government outcompetes the criminals for the market share
Pushes the price up and causes users to turn to disease-causing injected drugs. Drives the price down and ensures higher-quality drugs in a safer form.
Makes talking about drugs taboo, fostering dangerous practices and spreading misinformation. Opens the door to educating the public about drugs and helping them.

In legalizing drugs, the government would be saying, ‘The so-called ‘war on drugs’ was a mistake, and now we are going to try another way.’ That admission entails a moral obligation to re-open the dossiers for those people who were incarcerated because of drug possession. Hundreds of thousands of Canadians have a criminal record and limited job prospects because they were once found in possession of drugs—most often cannabis. This is ridiculous! Why not wipe their record clean and put those Canadians to work?

As for those currently serving time for drug-related offenses, that is,17% of the current prison population, or 3902 Canadian citizens and human beings –Why not pardon them? This is not just good karma, it is good economic sense, since it would reduce the amount of taxpayer money that is flowing into correctional services Canada (CSC)—2.6 BILLION dollars in 2014-15—money that we could put it to use in our schools, in our health care system, and addressing climate change.

Let’s hope that Justin Trudeau is open to consider making psychoactive substances legal in Canada. It would increase government revenues, so what’s not to like? And this new source of revenue might go over better with the man-on-the-street than the oil sands or selling LAVs to the Saudis.

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