Up for Vote: A New Vision on Drug Policy

October 19, 2015

The following blog post was written jointly by Richard Elliott, Executive Director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, and Donald MacPherson, Executive Director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.

How encouraging that the state of our outdated and ineffective drug policy is getting some attention during this federal election. Finally, after decades of the failed “war on drugs” mentality (an unfortunate 1970s holdover), there could be light at the end of the tunnel.

First, let’s clear something up: drug use and dependence, which are not one and the same, are overwhelmingly public health ― not criminal justice ― issues. It now seems that Canadians, and a growing number of their would-be political representatives, largely understand this, and aren’t interested in criminalizing every 19-year-old with a joint or a cannabis plant.  Unfortunately, with the erroneously-named Safe Streets and Communities Act enacted in 2012, the Government of Canada made mandatory minimum sentences for various drug offences the law of the land, moving a public health matter even more squarely into the realm of criminal law.

But just because a government thinks “getting tough on crime” will be popular with voters doesn’t make it right or sensible. The myth, unsubstantiated by any evidence whatsoever, is that “locking them up” will curtail problems associated with drug use, and even reduce drug use at large. In Canada, this fanciful notion has persisted, despite a 2002 study commissioned by Justice Canada itself, which concluded that mandatory minimum sentences are “least effective in relation to drug offences” and noted that “drug consumption and drug-related crime seem to be unaffected, in any measurable way, by severe [mandatory minimum sentences].”

By contrast, the damage done by such an approach is all too real. Mandatory minimum sentences for possessing drugs for personal use do not make Canadians safer. They will not improve the health of our economy, the safety of our streets, and the well-being of communities throughout Canada.  And the inevitable overcrowding of Canadian prisons will not only increase tension and conflict in prisons, but also cost taxpayers billions of dollars. The damage of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences has been witnessed, tragically, over decades in the US, which is struggling with all the costs, human and financial, of an epidemic of mass incarceration – an epidemic driven predominantly by ever-harsher drug laws that are applied in blatantly racist ways and end up corroding the health and welfare of entire communities.

Mandatory minimum sentences will disproportionately affect some of the most marginalized Canadians who live with addiction.  But we all have a stake in resisting such misguided laws, because drug misuse affects families of all sorts. We all know people we care about who could face serious criminal penalties, whether because of problem drug use or just casual use. It’s hard to see how prison and a criminal record is helpful in either case.

Furthermore, mandatory minimum sentencing means judicial discretion has been abolished, resulting in unfair penalties not tailored to the seriousness of the offence – disregarding a fundamental principle of our criminal justice system. This means that prison populations will continue to swell, and the war-on-drugs mentality means prisoners are seeing their human rights further eroded and their chances for rehabilitation severely diminished.

Nor can we overlook the public health implications of imprisoning people with addictions. The scientific evidence is overwhelming that the potential transmission of blood-borne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C (HCV), through sharing of non-sterile equipment to inject drugs, is greater in prison. And since most prisoners are eventually released back into the community, the result is a further risk to public health.

And who will bear the massive costs of all this criminal justice machinery? Taxpayers, of course, with little benefit, and plenty of harm, to show for it.

But there is hope. There is a global movement to shift away from regressive drug policy. The Supreme Court of Canada has indicated its concern with mandatory minimum sentences; next year it will consider the issue specifically in relation to drug offences. And it’s encouraging that, during this federal election, candidates from several of the major political parties, and some of the parties themselves, are speaking out in favor of smarter policy, relying less on punishment and prisons and more on evidence-based measures that reduce harm and protect public safety.

Mandatory minimum sentencing is unhelpful, counterproductive and costly. It’s past time for change.