On Health Canada’s website under the heading, Mission, Values and Activities, the Ministry declares its commitment to “improving the lives of all of Canada’s people”. As part of this mandate, the agency is empowered to regulate psychoactive substances under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA). However, the opportunities for public safety are lost through evidence-free thinking by senior policy makers, and the law’s cooptation by special interest groups whose actions put Canadians at risk.
The CDSA penalizes those who possess or traffick in certain substances, a punitive feature which depends upon the threat of punishment to deter people from consuming or profiting from drugs. The failed 40 year-old drug war has proved otherwise – according to the recently released report from the Global Commission on Drugs. Rather than enhance public safety, the threat of penal sanctions sustains black markets where business is conducted outside the behavioural norms and regulatory structures of legitimate enterprise. Consequently, the violence and related havoc intrinsic to drug trafficking is fed by the (il)legal environment which governments create through a fetish with prohibitionist policies and practices.
It is painfully ironic that the current and former Ministers of Health have chosen to use the CDSA to threaten imprisonment for those possessing or cultivating cannabis, a product which has far fewer negative health effects than do the penal sanctions for its cultivation or possession. It is jail, not cannabis, from which Health Canada should be protecting Canadians. As it stands now, the most dangerous thing about cannabis is being caught with it by the police.
The application of the CDSA assumes that Canadians cannot distinguish between the use and mis-use of drugs which they put in their body. However, unadulterated heroin can be used with few negative health or social consequences, but tobacco shortens lives and adds millions in public health care costs. The inability of the Minister and policy-makers to discern and control varying use patterns of drugs – with their differential costs to society – raises the issue of equality under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Health Canada permits tobacco and alcohol to be trafficked in a soft regulatory environment which violates the right to “equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination” under Section 15 of the Charter. We may legally produce wine and smoke tobacco in our homes to alter consciousness, but the analogous effects of cannabis sativa are forbidden. Thus, alcohol and tobacco industries are enriched by a virtual protection racket operated by police and courts who enforce the CDSA, while focusing the criminal law towards those who cultivate or use cannabis products. The status quo is sustained by a legal sleight of hand which transfers the Minister’s power to regulate drugs to enforcement bureaucracies who choose to do battle with “drug enemies”.
Section 56 of the CDSA gives the Minister of Health the power to exempt any controlled substance from all or any provisions of the Act if the exemption is necessary in the public interest. While the Minister could use the CDSA to allow physicians to dispense unadulterated heroin to addicts, she inadvertently chooses organized crime to do the same job. The CDSA is manipulated to create the fictitious category of “illegal drugs” to support the prohibitionist leanings of Canadian drug policy. There is no such thing as an illegal drug.
While most of us see the harms behind acts of bias and discrimination towards people, we are less likely to see how law is biased in favour of “good drug users”, while demonizing others for their choices, irrespective of the social and economic costs behind one’s preferred psychoactive substance.
We have lost sight of the fact that almost all problems associated with drugs are caused by the legal and ideological framework superimposed by those who hold bureaucratic and political power.