Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Confronting Drug Policy

Two stark drug stories are currently dominating headlines in Canada. The first is the proposed legalization of marijuana and the subsequent complications. The legalization of cannabis is accepted in the media as a fait accompli despite some reticence among Canadians, the medical community and provincial governments. It is a near certainty that as of next July Canada will have legal cannabis for sale in all the territories and provinces to most Canadians.

Some of the news around marijuana legalization has been those eager to get a toehold in the industry and skirt the existing laws. I saw this in person when I passed at least three dispensaries during my weekend visit to Toronto in clear violation of current laws. Attitudes seem to be basically celebratory towards this policy change.

The second, and more important drug headline is the ongoing fentanyl crisis. I will admit off the top that despite hearing about this topic for months I fear I remain hopelessly ignorant. Fentanyl is an opioid that has begun appearing in large numbers in North America. It is an incredibly powerful drug and apparently even a small intake can cause a drug overdose. A CBC story posted in December 2016 states that about 500 Canadians died that year alone. During a recent town hall-style gathering VICE held on drug liberalization Justin Trudeau was confronted by a frontline health worker who furiously challenged the Prime Minister for the government's failure and cited the daily death toll the drug was having in Toronto and Vancouver. 

Many of the deaths are exactly the type of people you assume. People with drug addiction problems, or other dependency problems. However, the fatalities are increasingly hitting casual drug users as fentanyl spreads.

I think it's important here to start talking about my own position here, and how I believe I am starting to recognize how wrong I am. I have a somewhat atypical relationship with drugs. I assume (or know) that many of my friends enjoy cannabis recreationally and when the prohibition ends their lives will improve. I don't smoke, so the appeal to legalization was often lost on me. At best I was apathetic and at worst I was uncomfortable with the concept of the state sanctioning the use of a drug. I say this as an utter hypocrite. I enjoy alcohol and find it an important part of my socializing behaviour, and I recognize the harm done to society from alcohol is far more pervasive than that done by cannabis.

The reality is that cannabis prohibition hurts and helps exactly the wrong people. Case study after cases study shows that legalization is effective and has an overwhelmingly positive impact on jurisdictions that try it.

So, what about opioids?

A number of years ago Portugal embarked on a radical policy. They legalized all drugs and fundamentally redressed their narcotic/addictions policy. From everything I have ever heard it was a wild success. Canada stands poised to legalize a substance that largely appeals to a certain segment of the Canadian populace, but has barely addressed the crisis unfolding among opioid users. The same logic that says legalizing cannabis is a net positive can be applied to other, harder drugs. Drugs that are currently creating much greater harm. The sad truth is that while I intellectually understand that my cultural biases against these drugs makes the concept of legalizing them not a little bit abhorrent, but frankly, I have to get over it. So should the rest of the country.

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