Canada Should Legalize All Recreational Drugs
The social harms of prosecuting drug users far outweigh any public health benefits from prohibition
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah is a professor in the department of sociology at U of T Mississauga. Read a different view of drug legalization by Robert Mann, a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
Why are most recreational drugs illegal? If the rationale for the war on drugs is to decrease drug use, it hasn’t worked. It hasn’t stopped the production or importation of drugs. Quite the opposite: there are billions of dollars to be made from the illegal drug trade. This often comes with serious violence – sometimes in Canada, but more often in Mexico 1 and other source countries in South America and Central America.
The United States, in particular, has been waging a war on drugs for several decades, 2 and it’s still one of the world’s largest consumers of cocaine. 3 This should tell us that we’re not going to reduce drug use through the enforcement of laws.
Some people use drugs because they enjoy doing so. Many Canadians already consume a number of drugs each week: alcohol, caffeine and nicotine are the most common. People also use harder drugs recreationally, and of course, some of these people develop substance use and abuse problems. But arresting and incarcerating them is not going to help them deal with the issues that are leading them to use or abuse harder drugs in the first place. This is why a public health approach to all drugs, where we’re striving for harm reduction rather than elimination of use, makes the most sense.
For most of human history, drugs haven’t been illegal. It’s only in the last 110 years that we’ve had drug prohibition in Canada. Even so, my neighbours in downtown Toronto often express surprise that cannabis was legalized just recently. Many think it’s been legal, or at least decriminalized, for some time. They think this because of what they look like and where they live: they don’t have to worry about being arrested.
The unequal enforcement of drug laws has profoundly harmed the individuals that are targeted, their families and their communities
As a criminologist, I’m particularly interested in how Black males perceive and experience the police. And you can’t do research around race and policing without focusing on drugs. The war on drugs drives many of the inequalities we see in our justice system.
We know that Canadians use drugs at similar rates across racial groups. 4 But in practice, drug laws are used to intrude into the lives of certain segments of the population. In Toronto and in many other cities, the unequal enforcement of drug laws 5 has profoundly harmed the individuals that are targeted, their families and their communities. A higher proportion of members of these communities have criminal records for drug possession that impede their ability to finish their education, to gain meaningful employment, to find housing and to travel.
It’s this profound injustice that has led me to believe that the social harms caused by drug prohibition far outweigh the potential health harms of legalizing and regulating access to drugs.
One of the imbalances in how drug laws are applied that we’ve seen with cannabis comes with the exercise of police discretion. Because some police officers viewed cannabis possession as a relatively minor crime, they’d confiscate the drug without making an arrest. But that’s not true of everyone the police have caught. The data show that positive police discretion has not been exercised when it comes to racialized people. 6 The difference is in who gets stopped and searched, who’s found in possession and who ends up being arrested and convicted. Black and Indigenous people in Canada are disproportionately arrested for cannabis possession. 7
We’ve spent billions of dollars to prosecute people for the possession of small amounts of drugs. 8 We’re doing our whole country a disservice. We’re locking away people’s talents and potential because we criminalize drug use.
Consider a society in which all drugs are legal; a society in which people can buy a small quantity through a government-approved pharmacy at fair prices and know exactly what they’re getting (unlike on the black market). If they wished, people could take the drug under the supervision of a health-care professional at an injection site or similar facility, greatly reducing the risk of overdose. Under these conditions, the black market for drugs – and much of the associated violence, social harm and health risks – could be virtually eliminated. Opponents cite fears that drug use would soar. But the evidence from Portugal, the only jurisdiction in the world that has decriminalized all drugs, indicates the opposite: problematic use would actually decline, 9 as would the negative consequences associated with criminalization.
Governments could use a percentage of sales revenues for research and services around addictions and mental health. At the local level, the city could use police arrest data to identify neighbourhoods that have been overpoliced with respect to drugs, and direct a portion of the tax revenue to the most criminalized communities. City councillors and members of the public could engage in discussions about how best to use these funds to meet the needs of each jurisdiction. The money might be directed to after-school programs, skills training or community health centres.
Of course, I have concerns about how drug legalization would be implemented. In Canada, one is legally permitted to possess 30 grams of cannabis. The limit for cocaine, opioids and other drugs would have to be set low, recognizing that you can overdose on these drugs in a way that you can’t with cannabis.
There could be no drug advertising, and sales would have to occur through tightly regulated government outlets. There would be strict penalties for selling drugs to underage youth and against using and driving – just as there are now for alcohol.
It’s important that we don’t lose sight of the many health harms associated with drug use. But we need to be honest about the reasons people use them – and the potential benefits. We’re seeing that psilocybin, the psychoactive component of mushrooms, and MDMA may have potential for people with PTSD and a range of other mental health issues.
We also must be honest about the substantial social burden associated with criminalizing drug use. Criminalization has utterly failed to stop individuals from using. We’ve spent enormous amounts of money and devastated countless lives – often from racialized communities – enforcing laws that don’t work. Legalization is a sensible alternative.
ALBANY – Shortly before efforts to legalize marijuana failed in the State Senate last June, the measure’s sponsor made a dire prediction: The issue would be dead in 2020.
State Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, believed then that lawmakers would fear taking on such a controversial issue in an election year.
“I’ve changed my mind,’’ Krueger said last week.
The author of the Senate bill, Krueger believes election-year politics are no longer the threat she thought they’d be. Now, she and other lawmakers believe the plan has a better chance of getting approved in the coming months than at any point in 2019.
On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will present his 2020 state budget plan, a document in which he will also lay out his latest proposal for permitting the cultivation, distribution, sale and use of marijuana in New York.
Much of its contents are expected to mirror plans from last year, and there will still be much tussling over some of specifics. Among the top: how will the state spend the roughly $300 million in projected annual marijuana tax revenue.
There is already rising confidence among marijuana legalization supporters that this is their year, though a broad range of health, law enforcement and other opponents are now engaging to defeat the push again.
A visit to the Berkshires
Last year, legalization had support in the Democratic-run Assembly. But it stalled in the Senate in June over concerns raised by suburban New York City Democrats on Long Island and Westchester County.
Some were firmly opposed and some, such as freshman State Sen. Peter Harckham, wanted efforts to slow down.
Harckham, a Westchester County Democrat who represents parts of three suburban New York counties, last summer visited two communities in western Massachusetts, home to some of the commonwealth’s newest government-regulated stores that sell cannabis products from buds to gummy bears. Harckham talked to operators, to health care and law enforcement officials and to people in public schools. He saw the parking lots filled with cars – most license plates were from New York State, which has seen thousands of people cross state lines to buy marijuana.
Since that visit, Harckham has done more research, and his views have morphed. In an interview last week, he said he’s no longer in the slow-things-down side of the debate. He came away from Massachusetts, where voters legalized marijuana in 2016, with a key observation: “The sky is not falling,” he said.
On marijuana legalization this year in Albany, Harckham said: “I’m certainly in a better place.’’ He added: “The reality is you can buy marijuana anywhere in the state, in any high school. The private market has won, so we should be regulating this and getting the tax revenue.”
Harckham’s support is significant because he is the chairman of the Senate’s alcoholism and substance abuse committee. He said Krueger has heavily amended her marijuana bill to secure backing from him and other senators; he said one change would give a “tremendous shot in the arm” to woefully underfunded substance abuse education, prevention and treatment programs by dedicating 25% of marijuana tax proceeds to such efforts.
Not all opponents or those sitting on the fence in the Senate have seen their concerns assuaged, making legalization still not a done deal for 2020.
Sen. Monica Martinez, a Democrat, represents the far eastern end of Long Island. A former educator, she has heard concerns about legalization from school officials, students and parents. If it came for a vote today, she would vote no, in part, because of what she witnesses as the drug’s effect on teens.
“I just think it’s a little bit hypocritical that we’re trying to fight an opioid epidemic but at the same time trying to legalize a drug,” she said of marijuana. Instead, if New York wants to legalize it, officials should hold a statewide referendum, as they did in 2013 for casino gambling.
“It’s an issue that should be in the hands of our voters,” the Suffolk County lawmaker said.
2020 versus 2019
Only two years after dismissing legalization efforts and calling marijuana a “gateway drug,” Cuomo jumped on the legalization bandwagon in 2019. He proposed a massive and complex regulatory and taxing scheme, guiding everything from the licensing of marijuana farms to rules for new smoking lounges.
But the effort faced organized opposition, led by law enforcement and health groups, the state PTA and a number of moderate lawmakers; especially nervous were new or relatively new Democratic senators from districts previously held by Republican senators.
In the end, two things killed the 2019 effort: a split within the Senate Democratic conference and an uneasiness by legalization proponents, including Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, over Cuomo’s refusal to guarantee that a large portion of the drug’s tax revenues would be steered to low-income communities hit hardest by decades of marijuana arrests.
“I’ve been most concerned about that,” Peoples-Stokes said last week. The sponsor of marijuana legalization in the Assembly, Peoples-Stokes recently met with Cuomo advisers to explain “in detail” why the revenue component she wants is so crucial. “I think they get it,” she said of the Cuomo administration. Whether that means Cuomo will embrace it in his budget plan won’t be known until Tuesday.
Cuomo’s office declined comment in advance of the budget release on Tuesday.
‘Momentum is there’
Krueger believes a key thing is playing out in 2020. “The governor is clearly much more interested this year than he was last year,” she said.
Last June, Krueger criticized Cuomo for not getting involved in efforts to convince fence-sitting Senate Democrats to back legalization. Cuomo has since met with neighboring governors to seek a consensus on legalization laws for the region. Today, he is “much more comfortable” with legalization, said Krueger, who is the influential chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee.
But would Cuomo jump in this year to move reluctant Democrats? “Yes, my gut tells me he will,” Krueger said.
One way is if he jams the policy matter into the state’s budget. If shoved into budget bills, political cover is created for those who might not support legalization but can’t afford to vote no for a budget that contains everything from public school financing to popular health programs.
What’s driving the legalization optimism in Albany? Part of it is public opinion polling. Part of it is the decriminalization law passed last year when legalization failed. Part of it is the widespread market for CBD products, which are produced from hemp plants but don’t contain the ingredients to get people high. And part of it is legalization efforts that have occurred elsewhere, like Massachusetts.
“The momentum is there and it’s pretty fast and furious,” Krueger said of 2020 legalization. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County Democrat, recently said she believes legalization is “inevitable,” though she added more work is needed.
Foes ramping up for fight
Opponents are not sitting by. Several groups involved in last year’s battle held a conference call Tuesday to discuss strategy, and there is talk of a renewed focus on health concerns and problems – such as driving while high arrests and accidents – seen in some states that have legalized the drug.
Critics also wonder why the state is looking to ban flavored vaping products for adults at the same time it wants to legalize marijuana. And they note the dangers of marijuana were brought out in full display by the rash of lung-related illnesses and deaths across the nation among people who used THC-containing e-cigarettes, obtained in the vast majority of cases through what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls “informal” sources, such as drug dealers or friends. Fifty-seven deaths have been attributed to the outbreak.
“I don’t understand why they would want to move forward with legalization,” said Kyle Belokopitsky, executive director of the New York State PTA, of the vaping crisis that emerged nationwide over the summer.
There is a “disconnect” between state public health efforts to crack down on vaping and tobacco products while at the same time legalizing marijuana, critics say. Moreover, it’s an election year, and Albany already is facing sticky fights over everything from tax hikes for the wealthy to to whether to change a controversial new cash bail law.
“I would agree they are excited,” said Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan, a Suffolk County Republican, of Democrats’ push for marijuana this year. “But they are wrong.”
The state went too far last year, he believes, in decriminalizing possession of marijuana, making it a violation and not a crime to possess up to 2 ounces of the drug. “This is a massive, sweeping change that’s not being properly paid attention to,” Flanagan said of the legalization push.
Backers ‘cautiously optimistic’
Marijuana proponents say the issue has been studied and debated and that legalization will bring thousands of jobs – in the form of retail, agriculture and other sectors – as well as $300 million in annual tax revenue to New York once implemented.
Moreover, these backers believe the vaping crisis that hit states beginning last summer proves their point: that legalization will bring safer marijuana products, regulated by the state, to the marketplace and not be spiked with any range of fillers and other unknown ingredients.
“Consumers need to know what they’re getting,” said Melissa Moore, deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s New York office.
Moore said conversations with lawmakers and Cuomo advisers continued after 2019 session’s end last June.
Proponents also know an Albany truism: Seldom do major policy ideas get approved in one year. For-profit companies that produce and distribute medical marijuana products in New York, which is already legal, are better coordinated in 2020 to lobby with pro-legalization groups in Albany, advocates say.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Moore said of legalization this session.
Those split on the issue could agree on one thing for the coming months in Albany. “It’s going to be a fight,” said Belokopitsky, the PTA leader.
Story from The Buffalo News