Drug policy is the policy, usually of a government, regarding the control and regulation of drugs considered dangerous, particularly those which are addictive. A key component of the current drug policy in Canada and most other countries is to prohibit the use of drugs that are considered too dangerous to use. Use of these drugs is illegal. The result is that use of these drugs is treated primarily as a criminal justice issue rather than a public health issue. There is growing recognition that prohibition, often referred to as “the war on drugs”, is not working. The Huffington Post picked “Rethinking Drug Policy and Treatment” as one of the top ten causes that will shape the next decade.
Portugal decriminalized the possession of all drugs for personal use in 2001 when 1% of its population was addicted to heroin. Decriminalization means possession of a drug for personal use is not subject to criminal sanctions, but it is still illegal to sell the drug. Drug distribution is still controlled by the black market, not the government. At the same time Portugal ramped up housing, treatment and social services for problematic drug users. The results have been impressive and many countries are now studying the Portuguese model. Here are some of the positive outcomes from Portugal as summarized by Transform: Getting Drugs Under Control:
- Levels of drug use are below the European average.
- Drug use has declined among those aged 15-24, the population most at risk of initiating drug use.
- Between 2000 and 2005 (the most recent years for which data are available) rates of problematic drug use and injecting drug use decreased.
- Rates of continuation of drug use (i.e. the proportion of the population that have ever used an illicit drug and continue to do so) have decreased.
- Newly diagnosed HIV cases for people who inject drugs fell from 1,016 to 56 between 2001 and 2012.
- New cases of AIDS for people who inject drugs decreased from 568 to 38 between 2001 and 2012.
- Deaths due to drug use have decreased significantly – from approximately 80 in 2001, to 16 in 2012.
In conclusion, when Portugal decriminalized drug use the level of drug use did not increase.
FAR supports the decriminalization of all drugs for personal use. There are two types of drug users; non-problematic drug users and problematic drug users. The majority of people who use drugs (whether legal, illegal or prescribed) are not problematic users. They are not a threat to themselves or others. Giving them a criminal record is counter-productive, unjustifiable and a waste of public funds. Problematic drug users struggling with substance use disorder are ill and should not be criminalized for compulsive drug use. It is a problem requiring a public heath response not a criminal justice response. They should receive medical treatment. Based on the outcomes in Portugal, concerns that decriminalization will increase drug use are unfounded. Further, decriminalization reduces stigma which is one of the significant barriers to treatment. More people seeking treatment means that the harms of drug use, like HIV/AIDS and death, are substantially reduced.
3. Regulation and Control
Canada is in the midst of an opioid overdose epidemic. Canadians are dying of opioid overdoses in record numbers. Drug policy experts ask questions like, “Are drugs killing people, or are our drug policies killing people?” There is no question that if illegal drugs were regulated and controlled by the government, drug users would know what they are purchasing and they would know the potency of the drugs they are consuming. This would save lives. Many of the current overdoses are occurring because drug users think they are buying one drug, like heroin, but are getting another, like fentanyl which is much more toxic.
The concern is that if we regulate and control more drugs to reduce the harms caused by prohibition, more people will use these drugs, become addicted and suffer harms. Portugal’s experience with decriminalization indicates that the removal of criminal sanctions in itself will not increase drug use.
A number of drug policy organizations and public health organizations are calling for a new approach to drug policy. See:
- A New Approach to Managing Illegal Psychoactive Substances in Canada by the Canadian Public Health Association
- Getting To Tomorrow: A Report on Canadian Drug Policy by the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition
- The Benefits of Legal Regulation by Transform: Getting Drugs Under Control
FAR supports a review of our drug policies with a view to minimizing the overall harms of drug use and drug policies and developing evidence-based policies.
For a list of drug policy websites click here.