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Column: War on drugs wrong approach

Today’s column for The StarPhoenix

Unlike politicians who are riding high in the polls, I have never used pot, or any other illegal drug for that matter. That puts me out of touch with voters both north and south of the border, which more or less is the story of my life.

I am in good shape locally, as Saskatoon has the highest percentage of arrests for pot possession in the country. In Halifax you have an 82 per cent chance of being let off by the police if you are caught with a small amount of marijuana, while in Saskatoon you have an 82 per cent chance of being charged. You are 35 per cent more likely to be charged if you are in possession of some pot in Saskatoon than anywhere else in Canada.

It’s hard to disagree with the Saskatoon Police Service. The service is open about having a zero (well, 12 per cent) tolerance for illegal drug possession. Pot is an illegal substance, and police are doing what they are sworn to do, which is to uphold the law. The added bonus is that it also keeps the chip and snack aisle at my local convenience store

safe from being plundered.

Drug policy in North America historically has been that we want to punish those who have illegal drugs. Police officers make the arrests and the courts decide on punishment, which often is probation or a fine for small amounts. Larger quantities of drugs often are connected to trafficking and offenders are treated more severely.

Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government attempted to take a different approach, which was to decriminalize the possession of marijuana. You would be fined, but not charged with a felony offence for possessing small amounts. That notion died when Paul Martin’s quest for power forced out Chrétien.

The tough-on-crime Conservatives have cracked down even more on drugrelated offences including possession, and introduced mandatory minimum sentences. More people are sent to jail, but with the reduction of funding to Corrections Canada, drug treatment behind bars is even harder to get. If the goal is rehabilitation and a reduction in drug use, the government’s approach isn’t working.

While Colorado and Washington have received a lot of attention for doing what Chrétien failed to do in decriminalizing marijuana, there is an interesting example that we should look at. Portugal has decriminalized all drugs.

In 2001, the Portuguese government was faced with a rising number of drug abuse-related deaths. Instead of cracking down further on drug use, which had proven ineffective, it decriminalized not just marijuana but even heroin, cocaine, LSD and other Schedule 1 drugs.

By focusing on treatment and prevention rather then jailing people it hoped to reduce the number of deaths and sexually transmitted infections. However, the laws related to selling drugs were unchanged. Law enforcement would come after drug dealers, but addicts were allowed to have a small amount of drugs in their possession – defined as enough for 10 days.

By changing the focus to prevention and treatment, overdoses related to drugs fell by more than half. STIs declined by 75 per cent. Drug use fell as well, with more people able to seek treatment without fearing criminal penalties.

The War on Drugs has shown that jail time isn’t an effective deterrent to drug use. The United States government has published several studies that show the approach has never worked, and made drug dealing more profitable. While the supply of drugs ebbed and flowed, use remained about the same.

The risk of STIs and other societal issues that come with drug use haven’t been a deterrent, either. Saskatoon has the highest rate of drug possession charges in Canada, yet the province also is known internationally for its high incidence rate of HIV and STIs.

After decades of the futile war on drugs, do we think that cracking down even more will work? A growing chorus of leading political figures are calling for a better solution to combat drug use and addictions.

Former UN secretary general KofiAnnan, former U.S. secretary of state George Schultz, a veteran of the war on drugs, and even embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who made a name for himself as a criminal prosecutor, are calling for approaches ranging from regulation to decriminalization. Even the Canadian Association of Police Chiefs is calling for the option to issue tickets for pot possession instead of laying charges for minor pot possession.

If our goal is to reduce drug use and its consequences, then we should be taking steps toward that end. The way to win the war on drugs is to stop waging it and have Ottawa look at alternatives that actually work.

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