Let’s Not Stop at Marijuana

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Decriminalizing all drugs will prevent much needless suffering


It’s very good news! This summer, assuming all goes according to Trudeau’s plan, recreational marijuana will become legal in Canada. 

The reform is long past due. The majority of Canadians have used this mildly intoxicating plant at one time or another, and the vast majority support its legalization.

Marijuana is demonstrably less dangerous than cigarettes and alcohol. For example, a recent comprehensive review found that cannabis is much less likely to cause cancer than either of those already legal drugs. And it makes people feel happier, to boot. The stuff’s not even physiologically addictive. Yet many a Canadian has a criminal record – many have even gone to jail – for using it. Worse, our long prohibition of the plant has effectively promoted the growth of organized crime: Because marijuana has been illegal, the control of its production and sale has been largely taken over by often-violent criminal gangs. 

The wide variation in how provincial governments are legalizing marijuana is interesting. Ontario will only sell weed in government stores. BC will allow local communities to decide how to sell it. And Manitoba is handing the business off to a select few private retailers. 

In my view, it’s not very important who sells this relatively innocuous drug. What is important is ensuring the price is low enough that organized crime can no longer make a profit by pedalling it on the black market. With the exception of medicinal marijuana purchased from licensed producers, the harm associated with marijuana has long been mostly due to the support its sales have provided to criminal gangs. 

Indeed, very often the greatest harms that come from illegal drugs of any kind are the  consequences that flow from prohibition. This was blatantly obvious with the prohibition of alcohol nearly a century ago. And it’s no less obvious with the soon-to-end prohibition of marijuana. 

Criminalization invites violent psychopaths to enter the market for huge profits and encourages them to push the drugs ever more aggressively to increase their profits. 

Of course, our liquor and cigarette manufacturers engage in similar pushing, but at least they’re mostly reigned in by the law and, unlike their gangland counterparts, they’re not known for gunning down rival executives to protect their turf.

So I hope our governments are smart and keep cannabis prices low enough to put organized crime out of the marijuana business. 

But I also hope our governments will end the prohibition of other, far more dangerous drugs – especially opiates – that still remain in the realm of the pusher and, disgustingly, are legally pushed by some pharmaceutical companies. To promote the well-being of us all, our governments should decriminalize all illicit drugs and ensure that those addicted to them have ready access to them. That access should not only be to drugs; addicted people must also be guaranteed access to treatment to help wean themselves off those drugs. The price of these drugs – opioids, cocaine, quaaludes, etc – should be so low no one can profit from pushing them. That includes drug companies. Yeah, I’m saying we should – to the extent necessary – subsidize the cost of the stuff. I am quite convinced that only then will we be able to reduce the use of addictive drugs that harm people. We must take the profit motive completely away. 

It may sound absurd to claim that making drugs so cheap that no one can compete is the way to go. But I am certain it’s the only way we will succeed in protecting people and limiting the harm these drugs now do. 

That said, we should only make drug dependency dollar cheap. Getting one’s fix should – to the maximum extent possible – involve being exposed to relevant health information and treatment options, to counselling. We should make it clear to addicted people that we, as a society, care about them and will do whatever we can to help them. 

The fact is we know this approach works. It has for decades been the de facto policy in the Netherlands, and Portugal explicitly adopted just such an approach back in 2001. The experiences of both countries are highly instructive. Drug use there is lower than in North America. Deaths due to overdose have declined precipitously in Portugal since legalization and visits to clinics by addicted persons have risen dramatically. Wisely, Portugal has made these visits fun! People want to improve their lives.

We need to adopt the same approach. Fortunately, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police is catching on – and the Liberal Party grassroots also seems to be onside. 

Addicts are mostly just people like the rest of us, striving to avoid pain. We need to make drugs available cheap (or free)  from government-run stores or other licensed channels where users will be exposed to ready help from well-trained staff, including medical professionals. We need to make drug prices too cheap for criminals to profit as competitors and to criminalize any pharmaceutical company that would push opiates or other destructive drugs upon us. Without the pushers, demand will fall. 

But that means we’ll have to be on guard for another hazard. We don’t want our governments to become profit-seeking pushers themselves, as they have with gambling and lotteries. As always, we have a responsibility as citizens to assert thoughtful, democratic control.


Dave SteelewebDavid Steele is a retired scientist and long time political activist.


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