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Why Canada should decriminalize all drugs

Critics’ worst fears about Portugal, which did so 17 years ago, have not been realized.

By Carmen Lansdowne

The decriminalization of drugs is a hot-button issue. Those who aren’t on the front lines of responding to addiction and the opioid crisis often have the impression that it would only enable those who use drugs. They also confuse decriminalization with legalization.

What’s the difference? Legalization declares the use, manufacturing and selling of drugs permissible by law. Whereas under decriminalization, only laws that prohibit the possession or personal use of drugs would be lifted. So a person wouldn’t be criminally prosecuted if found to have drugs that are clearly for his or her own use (as in, not enough to sell).

Why is this important? Because all the data gathered in the last 100 years of drug enforcement shows that prosecuting drug use is not an effective deterrent. In fact, the statistics indicate it creates pressures on our judicial system and penitentiaries, contributes to social stigma and can adversely affect the socio-economic standing of those who are prosecuted. For example, when young people are convicted of possessing a small quantity of party drugs, the criminal record can impact their careers for a lifetime.

Dealing with the most extreme cases on a daily basis has me convinced, more than ever, that drug use and drug addiction are health issues, not criminal issues.

Countries, such as Portugal, that have decriminalized drugs have shown that diverting money from enforcement to education, treatment, skills training and community building drastically decreases addiction. And decriminalization doesn’t mean “anything goes.” Far from it. In Portugal, if someone is caught with even a small amount of narcotics, those drugs are confiscated and that person is referred to the medical system to be evaluated by social workers, psychologists and a lawyer.

This system requires the medical and legal systems to have a much more in-depth and nuanced understanding of drug use and addiction. As a result, the stigma has substantially declined. Critics’ worst fears of Portugal’s 17-year-old policy — that drug addiction and use would increase — have not been realized.

For a quick second in 2017, there seemed to be political will in Canada to look at this important issue. Then the federal government suddenly doubled down on its commitment to the war on drugs. For me, this about-face was disappointing.

I run a large outreach ministry in a Vancouver neighbourhood where an estimated 75 to 80 percent of people suffer from both mental health challenges and addictions. Dealing with the most extreme cases on a daily basis has me convinced, more than ever, that drug use and drug addiction are health issues, not criminal issues. I hope, eventually, the government of Canada will come to agree.

Rev. Carmen Lansdowne is executive director at First United in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

This story originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of The United Church Observer. To read more of The Observer's award-winning content, subscribe to the magazine today. 

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