Opinions differ in politics and science over drugs: What are the goals of the state’s handling of drugs and how can they be achieved? While not a few countries still rely on strict bans and penalties, others have taken the path of a more liberal drug policy in recent years. Canada, for example, legalized the sale and use of cannabis in 2018 in order to deprive the black market of demand and reduce drug-related crime.
A new pilot project, initially limited to three years, has now started in the north-west Canadian province of British Columbia. Since January 31, carrying up to 2.5 grams of some harder drugs is no longer a punishable offense. If you are caught with that amount of cocaine (powder or crack), methamphetamine, MDMA or the opioids heroin, morphine and fentanyl, you will not be arrested and charged, the substances will not be confiscated.
In addition explained Carolyn Bennett, Federal Minister for Mental Health and Addiction Disorders, she has “thoroughly examined and carefully weighed up the effects on public health and public safety”. The measures would “reduce the stigma and harm and provide British Columbia with another tool to end the overdose crisis.”
The Canadian government promises to reduce the number of drug-related deaths by decriminalizing drug users. Because those affected would feel less stigmatized, they would also be more likely to take advantage of life-saving assistance, so the idea goes.
Opioid epidemic: No easy solution in sight
In fact, the number of drug addicts and deaths in Canada, as well as in the USA, is extremely high, as Jonathan Caulkins, expert on drug policy and professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, explains: “The very liberal distribution practice for prescription painkillers has led to this that many people have become addicted, about five million in the US and Canada in percentage terms.”
Canadian Crystal Daignault holds a photo of herself and her late daughter Claudia (right), who died of fentanyl poisoning at the age of 21
The addictiveness of these legal opioids has long been concealed or downplayed by the manufacturers. Many people switch to illegal substances at some point, such as heroin or, in recent years, the much more potent fentanyl – since then the number of people who die from an overdose has presumably increased many times over.
But how to deal with this epidemic? It is significant, Caulkins said, that “the United States and Canada have taken very different actions in recent years, but the results are very similar.” “The horrible truth is that even if we do all sorts of things and get everything right, the problem will not go away,” said the expert’s sobering analysis.
So focuses Canada for years to “reduce harm, save lives and give people the support they want and need.” This includes, for example, drug testing services or the possibility for addicts to use their illegally acquired substances under medical supervision.
Countries like Portugal have tried decriminalizing small amounts of illegal drugs before. Or, as the only US state, Oregon. According to experience, the results of such measures are rather modest, according to the expert Caulkins.
In contrast, largely uncharted territory, at least in relation to opioids, is the model of the so-called “Safe Supply”, “safer procurement”, which has also recently been tried in some places in Canada. Safer Supply means drug addicts can get government medicines instead of having to buy them on the black market – and avoid using drugs laced with dangerous substances or in high doses.
Repressive drug policy hardly successful – on the contrary
The fact is that the path of absolute bans and draconian punishments, the so-called “War on Drugs”, has failed miserably. The “Global Commission on Drug Policy”, an independent commission founded by high-ranking politicians, business people and human rights activists, wrote in its first report from 2011, it was believed that a “drug-free world” could be achieved “with tough law enforcement measures against those involved in the manufacture, distribution and consumption of drugs”. “In practice, the global illicit drug market – largely controlled by organized crime – has grown dramatically over this period.”
But even full legalization raises concerns. The opioid crisis began with the all too easy availability of the corresponding drugs. And alcohol and nicotine, which are the only legal drugs in many countries, also cause many addiction problems, which are at least partly related to their ubiquity.
Many experts believe that what remains is a middle ground between total availability and total ban – in which, for example, the decriminalization of certain quantities of some substances can at least help to limit the damage, for example as part of a “safer supply” strategy.
Most observers agree on one thing: a world without drugs never existed and in all likelihood never will. Canada’s measures are unlikely to have much impact on how illicit drugs are produced and traded. Caulkins says that drug use will probably not even be reduced, since it is actually being simplified. But at least the associated social and health damage could be reduced.