Prohibition of drugs was a mistake but decriminalization will not stop deaths

How many more people have to die because of a half-baked idea from a century ago?

It all started at the turn of the twentieth century when concoctions of opium were commonly found in medicine chests to treat toothaches, diarrhoea, and coughs. Before antibiotics, doctors used opium to treat diseases such as dysentery, cholera, and tuberculosis.

Many of these concoctions, such as Laudanum, were highly addictive.

laudanum ad in Sears. image: 12 tomatoes

There were two paths that governments could have taken. One would have been to control the potency and purity of opium and sell it through licensed outlets. The other was to make opium illegal.

The choice to make opium illegal was political and racist.

Prime Minister Laurier was looking for his fourth majority in a row in 1908. He heard of the “race riots” in Vancouver and sent his minister of labour, William Lyon Mackenzie King, to investigate.

King found resentment and anger towards Chinese workers. They had been brought to British Columbia to build the Trans Canada railway. With the railway complete and Chinese workers unemployed, white Canadians claimed that they were taking jobs away.

Also, Chinese Canadians were demonized for leading good, white Canadian women astray in “opium dens.” The Chinese were the perfect scapegoats: too many, too shady. Laurier played the race card, was returned to power, and passed the Opium Act in 1908.

The prohibition of substances, such as alcohol, has been a failure ever since.

Drug addiction is a serious problem but it is not criminal. The Opium Act placed the possession of opium in the same category of criminal acts as murder and rape.

Criminal acts are the most serious offenses against society. But drug abuse is an offence against an individual, not society. While drug pushers have bad intentions, drug users don’t intend to do anything criminal.

The state is to blame for not controlling the purity and potency of drugs made available. If not in a fit of moral outrage and attempt to control behaviour that mainly affects personal choice, governments would have made the rational choice to leave drugs legal.

The government’s impulse to control behaviour by making drug use criminal is misguided. Throwing people in jail for trying to ease their emotional or physical pain is a mistake.

So here we are a century later with these anachronistic drug laws. What are we to do?

Vancouver is asking the federal government to approve a plan to decriminalize simple possession of illicit drugs in the city. Mayor Kennedy Stewart said:

“Personal possession and use of drugs is not a criminal justice issue; it is a health issue,” said Stewart. “It is time to end the stigma around substance use, help connect more of our neighbours to health care, and save lives.”

But decriminalization does not make drugs legal. It does not guarantee the purity and potency of drugs, nor does it make them available from licensed vendors. Decriminalization simply makes the offence of drug possession less serious. The drugs are still as deadly.

It was a mistake to make drugs illegal in the first place. It’s a mistake we are living with today. This year, Kamloops has had the highest number of deaths from drug overdoses on record: double the 25 deaths recorded in 2019. And the year’s grim tally is not yet complete.

It’s too late to decriminalize pot

Decriminalization of marijuana should have happened decades ago. Now it would only add to the confusion.

Marijuana users are caught in a legal limbo. The government intends to legalize marijuana before Canada Day, 2018, but until then it’s illegal. Then, like a light being switched on, what was once a criminal offence will not be.

Alberta Legalization of Cannabis Committee

Government intentions aside, police are going about their business. They arrested activists Mark Emery (the “Prince of Pot”) and his wife Jodie as reported by CFJC Today.

The Liberals have been dithering over decriminalization for decades and this Trudeau is no different. Pierre Trudeau could have decriminalized marijuana in 1979. Then Justice Minister Marc Lalonde was playing politics when he said that he would decriminalize it before the upcoming election if opposition parties would just fast track the legislation. He was doubtful that they would. “I’m not optimistic,” Lalonde said (Calgary Herald, Feb. 22, 1979).

The opposition parties took Lalonde up on his challenge, agreeing to fast tracking.  Both opposition leaders Joe Clark and Ed Broadbent sent me letters of approval for decriminalization. They were responding to letters I sent on behalf of the Alberta Legalization of Cannabis Committee. I helped organize the group in 1977.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau wrote me to explain how his government was trying to decriminalize marijuana. His government had initiated a bill in the Senate, Bill S-19, in 1974.”The Commons, however, was unable to find the time to give the bill further attention; so it died on the order paper when the last session of Parliament ended (January 17, 1978),” Trudeau explained.

In my letter to the Calgary Herald, I complained about Lalonde’s tardy pace: “Why does the government seem so reluctant to do what all agree must be done? If Lalonde wants us to believe that this is a demonstration of his government in haste, then it’s time to see what a new government in action; a government that will not fiddle while Canadians get burned (April 14, 1979).”

Lalonde had teased Canadians long enough with his promises of decriminalization. His government was defeated by Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservative Party in June 11, 1979.

Executive Assistant to Clark’s Minister of Justice wrote me: “Mr. Clark’s government is currently reviewing this and other issues with a view to formulating policies and setting priorities.” “Be assured, Mr. Charbonneau, that your comments will be given serious consideration by the Government as it continues its study of this important matter (Aug. 3, 1979).” However, Clark’s government didn’t last long enough to decriminalize marijuana.

A Globe and Mail editorial argues that the government should decriminalize marijuana before legalizing it because users are in legal purgatory: “Besides, there is no viable interim regulatory regime that could accommodate a quasi-legal retail market. But there is when it comes to personal possession. It’s called decriminalization.”

It’s too late for decriminalization. More legislation would only add to confusion. There is a simple solution –what the Dutch call “gedogen.” Police simply don’t enforce marijuana laws. Unlike the Netherlands, where the law has been ignored for 30 years, police only have to turn a blind eye for another year.