Major harms flow from the criminal prohibition of drugs

The Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, a drug policy reform group, has identified several of the major harms that flow from the criminal prohibition of drugs. Eugene Oscapella has drawn much of the material for the following list from its website, specifically its foundation document:

* Instead of stopping or significantly reducing the flow of drugs, the criminal law creates a highly lucrative illegal market worldwide (sometimes referred to as a “black market”) and one that is “of staggering proportions,” according to one UN report. The potential profits of the trade have become a powerful incentive for criminal and terrorist organizations to produce and sell drugs;

* Canada’s support for using the criminal law as the principal instrument for dealing with certain drugs has greatly increased violence, corruption and dysfunction around the world – primarily in countries that produce drugs or ship them across their territories;

* Criminal prohibition stops only a small proportion of the drugs destined for Canada from abroad. Law enforcement officials seize perhaps as little as 10 per cent of drugs destined for Canada, and the domestic cannabis trade is a major industry within Canada.

* Prohibition has not stopped or significantly reduced availability of illegal drugs. Drugs are available even in Canadian prisons;

* Drug laws harm those who use drugs. The inflated price of drugs on the illegal market may lead those who use them to more dangerous forms of use of some drugs, such as injecting. This, coupled with inadequate access to clean equipment, greatly increases the risk of acquiring Hepatitis C, HIV and multiple drug resistant bacterial infections. These infections will inevitably spread to others outside the community of users. Some infections have had a particularly devastating impact on aboriginal communities;

* Users are stigmatized in the public eye because current laws define their activities as criminal. Having a criminal record may prevent foreign travel and some types of employment, causing further disadvantage to those who use drugs:

* Governments are reluctant to educate people honestly, or to allow others to educate them honestly, about the properties of various drugs and how to use them as safely as possible if one decides to use them. As a result, those who use drugs often don’t know how to reduce their risk of harm;

* Hundreds of thousands of Canadians have a disabling criminal record simply because they were once convicted of possession of drugs – most often cannabis;

* There is no substantial evidence that the criminal law significantly deters drug use. Relying on the criminal law does not address the many reasons for drug use that have nothing to do with the law – trauma, sexual and physical abuse, mental illness, genetic predisposition, homelessness, dislocation, stress and simple curiosity and enjoyment among them. As a result, the criminal law deflects attention from the heart of the drug issue – why some people use drugs in a way that causes harm to them and their communities.

* There is abundant evidence that mandatory minimum sentences do not either deter as predicted or reduce the harms associated with drug use. Despite this, the federal government has refused to abandon this as the centerpiece of its recent approach to drugs;

* Sending more people who use drugs to prisons, and for longer terms – the inevitable outcome of the current government’s approach – will also increase the risk of disease spreading in prisons and, ultimately, in open society;

* The smaller players in the drug market, not large criminal organizations, will almost certainly bear the brunt of tougher drug laws, despite the rhetoric of government that its new laws are designed to attack organized crime;

* The current federal government increase in criminal justice expenditures to deal with drugs will inevitably take resources from programs outside the criminal justice system that have greater chances of reducing drug-related harms;

* The steady increase in police and government powers to enforce drug laws will continue to diminish the rights of all Canadians, not merely those who use, produce or sell drugs.