Time to end the phoney war on drugs: Punitive approach to legislation is just making the problem worse
It's time to end the phoney war on drugs
Punitive approach to legislation is just making the problem worse
By William Johnson, Times Colonist
We are supposedly engaged in a "war on drugs." What war on drugs? It's a war on people - the young, the uneducated and the aboriginals. A phoney war, because it provokes that which it proclaims to repress.
Take three countries with different approaches to recreational drugs: the United States, Canada and the Netherlands. The first two rely on a punitive approach. The Netherlands prefers harm reduction. As is notorious, Dutch citizens can openly enjoy cannabis in coffee shops.
So does the Netherlands swarm with drug-crazed zombies? Do the Dutch die in droves from overdose? Find the answer in World Drug Report 2011, published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Here's the rate of deaths where drugs were the primary cause, per million of population aged between 15 and 64. In the U.S., most punitive, 182.4 died. In Canada, less punitive: 93.4. In the Netherlands, most permissive: 11.6. So for every Dutch death caused by drugs, eight Canadians and 15.7 Americans died. Our penal laws are gifts to embalmers.
Another statistic: the UNODC's "best estimate" of the percentage of the population (15 to 64) who use cannabis annually. In the U.S., 13.7 per cent. In Canada, 12.6 per cent. In the Netherlands: 5.4 per cent. For every Dutch pot smoker, there are 2.3 Canadians and 2.5 Americans.
Cannabis accounts for 70 per cent of all recorded drug offences. But cocaine is more harmful. In the U.S., 2.4 per cent take cocaine. In Canada, 1.4 per cent. In the Netherlands, 0.6 per cent. So four Americans use cocaine for every Dutch user.
The American-Canadian approach is ineffective and hypocritical. Have we not learned the lesson of the destructive U.S. prohibition against alcohol, its reign of crime and killing? The more repressive the prohibition, the higher the price of the drug, so the more attractive to organized crime. Crime bosses recruit poor saps who sell the drugs on the street. Those who get arrested are easily replaced.
Who uses cannabis, the most popular illegal drug? The World Drug Report 2011 presents a profile of U.S. users who obtained treatment between 2000 and 2008. More than half - 57.1 per cent - had been referred for treatment by the criminal justice system.
One third were less than 17 years old, another third were 18 to 24. Only 34.9 per cent were over 25 years of age. They were young and under-educated: only 9.6 per cent had studied beyond high school while 90.4 per cent had 12 years of schooling or less. Only 19.2 per cent held full-time jobs.
These characteristics - young, under-educated, not employed - target one category of Canadian citizens: aboriginals. A Statistics Canada study titled Victimization and offending among the Aboriginal population of Canada, by Jodi-Anne Brzozowski, Andrea Taylor-Butts and Sara Johnson, lists the factors linked with criminal offences.
"Some of these factors, which are all more common among the aboriginal population, include being young, having low educational attainment, being unemployed, having low income, being a member of a loneparent family, living in crowded conditions, and having high residential mobility," the report says.
If prison solved problems rooted in social and cultural dysfunctions, then Nunavut and the Northwest Territories would be model communities. On March 3, Carleton University professor Ian Lee provided a Commons committee with hard data that should provoke second thoughts. It is reproduced in the Macdonald Laurier Institute's March publication, Myths and Urban Legends Concerning Crime in Canada.
Based on Statistics Canada data for 2008, Lee showed how crime varied by province. Ontario reported 4,879 crimes per 100,000 of population, Quebec 5,065. But Manitoba reported 9,911 - twice the Ontario rate; Saskatchewan 12,892, four times; Yukon 21,805, five times; Nunavut 34,867, seven times and Northwest Territories 43,509 - nine times Ontario's rate.
Does building more prisons remedy these diverse situations? Lee gives incarceration rates for 2008.
Nova Scotia had the lowest at 59 per 100,000. Newfoundland followed with 68, then Quebec at 72 and Ontario at 87. But the rate in Manitoba was 177, in Saskatchewan 187, in Yukon 303, in Nunavut 684 and in the Northwest Territories 843.
The people incarcerated in the Northwest Territories were 14 times the proportion in Nova Scotia. Clearly, aboriginal communities have a serious specific problem of criminality. More and longer imprisonments, as proposed by the Harper government's Safe Streets and Communities Act, just don't make sense.
Rampant crime in aboriginal communities results from a snake pit of intertwined social and cultural legacies. And "substance abuse," whether the drug be legal like alcohol or illegal like pot, is a common denominator. The "Victimization" study cited above noted: "Substance abuse was assessed to be at a medium or high level for a majority of adults involved in correctional services, but was particularly prevalent among aboriginal persons. Specifically, more than nine in 10 had a substance abuse need compared to seven in 10 non-aboriginal adults."
The hammer-and-sickle approach of creating concentration camps for recreational drug users will provide neither safe communities nor safe streets. An intelligent democracy, an intelligent government, transfers those billions towards targeted communities to reach the root of their dysfunctions.
Veteran journalist William Johnson is the author of Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada. He wrote this for the Ottawa Citizen.
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