Drug Policies to Support Healthy Communities

After reading too many bad arguments in social media on both sides of the drug debate (prohibitionist and anti-prohibitionist), I respectfully propose a few “dialogue guidelines” for these kinds of conversations. Irrespective of their arguments and information used to support them,  the common denominator is that members of both sides want to live in healthy communities.

Progressives and Prohibitionists


Drug Arrest

If Canadians can be roughly divided along a continuum of progressives or prohibitionist sentiments, it’s possible to analyze most arguments along common themes.

By way of illustration, the definition of what constitutes a “drug” is argued by progressives to be problematic itself. They frequently point out that legal substances (alcohol and tobacco) cause far more harm than all criminalized substances combined.

Prohibitionists might counter-argue that this is a logical fallacy (a tu quoque argument), insisting that smokers and drinkers don’t kill each other over turf, nor they are responsible for the slaughter in cartel-ravaged Mexico. But even that argument is flawed because it invokes a faulty comparison.

How can we get past endless, polarized arguments about drugs which are often based on faulty reasoning and begin working towards creating policies which foster healthy communities?

The following guidelines are proposed for encouraging dialogue among stake-holders who hold various perspectives on drug policy.

Policy options for consideration

  1. Recognizing our common humanity, we share a desire to live in healthy communities. Drug control policies which foster healthy communities

a) are characterized by low or non-existent levels of interpersonal violence and predatory property crime;

b) have few or no black markets for contraband commodities;

c) are engaged in reducing demand for tobacco, alcohol and other potentially deadly substances through regulation, education and other non-coercive means;

d) employ practices which reduce or eliminate the profit motive for contraband sales;

e) employ the least restrictive means on personal liberty for drug control.

2. We agree that the rules for responding to the use of psychoactive substances will be based on the results from scientific inquiry, therefore

a) we affirm that science, as a means of knowing the world, is provisional and open to continuing exploration, findings and revision. We agree that

i) anecdotes do not qualify as evidence, no matter how numerous or apparently compelling;

ii) single-finding research outcomes are rarely definitive. Wherever possible, meta-analyses (research outcomes from a wide range of available studies) will inform drug policies;

iii) the funding for scientific research into drugs and their effects will be transparent and self-declared.

b) Where scientific findings differ regarding drugs or their control, attempts will be made to determine disparate findings by using peer review from qualified experts.

i) Where scientific consensus on important policy issues cannot be reached, the principle of “least harm” to individuals and communities will prevail, whenever possible.

c) If asked, participants in drug policy dialogues should be prepared to address the question, “What evidence will I accept to revise my beliefs on drugs and their control?”

  1. The body of science which informs drug policies must

a) include knowledge and perspectives from those most affected by these policies, including but not limited to

i) viewpoints from a range of current drug users, including self-identified addicts;

ii) former drug addicts who have “gone straight”;

iii) “rank and file” peace officers charged with enforcing drug laws;

iv) Crown prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges;

v) provincial and federal correctional staff (community and institutional) who are charged with executing the sentences of courts;

vi) progressive and prohibitionist public activists;

vii) public health agencies, provincial and federal;

viii) peer-reviewed academic research (meta-analyses).

  1. As peace officers, law enforcement agencies have a role in helping to shape healthy communities, therefore:

a) police leaders who give preeminence to research on policing strategies for informing drug policy have a key role in supporting healthy communities;

b) every effort will be made to support new roles for police to contribute to the development and maintenance of healthy communities;

c) peace officers will be professionally rewarded for outcomes which show their contributions to supporting community health in constructive ways.

5. Drug treatment policies and interventions for individuals must be

a) informed by science and “best practices” from around the world, and

b) shared within a professional community with its own criteria for certification of “treatment personnel”;

c) non-coercive with the full consent of participants, and as much as possible, non-stigmatizing;

d) promote abstinence as a desirable but not a necessary goal;

e) allow for interventions which are, but not limited to, opiate maintenance supervised by qualified medical staff;

f) supported by all levels of government;

g) recognize and address the relationship between healthy communities and safe, affordable housing for low income families;

h) publicly promoted through the media by provincial and federal agencies

That’s a start, and the list is by no means exhaustive. I’d like to hear more from others who have a stake in moving drug policies in the direction of creating healthy communities.


The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Drought picture

“The current extinction event began all the way back in the middle of the last ice age. [It] means that man was a killer… an “overkiller” right from the start” (Kolbert, 2014: 229).

It may not feel like it, but Kolbert’s research finds that we are experiencing an extinction of life on earth in real time. Humans will be responsible for the end of life on earth because destruction is in our evolutionary DNA.6th

That we are entering an age which may be the end of time for humanity is taken seriously by scientists. The International Union of Geological Sciences has struck a ‘Working Group on The ‘Anthropocene” through the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy to weigh the evidence for a formally defined geological unit. The group has formally proposed that the Anthropocene began about 1950, defined by the radioactive elements dispersed across the planet by nuclear bomb tests, but also other debris such as plastic pollution, pollution from power stations, concrete, and even the bones left by the global proliferation of the domestic chicken (The Guardian, August 29, 2016).

The evidence and experts consulted by Elizabeth Colbert support the theory that homo sapiens have initiated the next great extinction.  Kolbert writes, “The current extinction has its own novel cause: not an asteroid or a massive volcanic eruption but ‘one weedy species” (p. 266). We humans are the weeds, equipped with what we call ‘intelligence’. This unique capacity may be a mutation with the capacity to wipe out all or most forms of life on earth.

Our tendency to destroy other plant and animal species is not an artifact of industrialization. This insatiable quest to dominate life forms began early in the Holocene era (9700 BC) and coincided with the expanding numbers of humans and their activities. Starting with the largest and slowest moving mammals (such as the American mastodon some 13,000 years ago), the disappearance of animals since the last ice age follows the path of human migration.

The brutality of our existence is underscored by the current status of large primates.

“Having cut down our sister species ‘ the Neanderthals and the Denisovan ‘ many generations ago, we’re now working on our first and second cousins. By the time we’re done, it’s quite possible that there will be among the great apes not a single representative left, except, that is, for us.’ (p. 225).

We wiped out our Neanderthal competitors, but not before reproducing with them and leaving vestiges of their DNA in the human genome.

Evolutionary theory holds that humanity has no special status, something which our cultural anthropocentrism denies. Although philosophy and religion fantasize that humankind is existentially unique, man’s impact on the world’s biodiversity is an outcome of a particular mutation: the selfish desire to transform the natural habitat for reasons which go beyond satisfying survival needs. Unlike other mammals, we destroy the habitats of other plants and animals, a practice that will wipe out the conditions for our own survival.

Just you may be ready to concede that we are indeed living in the end of times, and our children will witness an environmental apocalypse, Kolbert abruptly turns optimistic and quotes a conservation expert from Alaska: “People have to have hope. I have to have hope. It’s what keeps us going.”

Regrettably, the evidence from our history of rapacious destruction weighs heavily against her final words. Perhaps she felt a need to end the book on a positive note, however, the current spectre of climate denialists occupying key government positions in the United States and elsewhere in the world leaves little room for optimism.

The value in her narrative is how the concept of the Anthropocene may be used by a broad range of environmental activists to dramatize the urgency of the need for immediate and far-reaching changes about how we live and consume. That would take a revolution against the legal status of the corporatism (especially ‘limited liability’), capitalist values and practices, the influence of elites in crafting legislation which facilitate profiteering from resource extraction, and the media which is powerfully influenced by those with money and power.

While I can’t blame the author for not delving into the enablers and facilitators of the impending Anthropocene, we are not told about the larger structural, global forces which cause the conditions which she describes. For that type of analysis and critique, readers would benefit from Ian Angus’s (2016) book, Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert, 2014. Henry Holt and Company, New York.

12 Steps To Environmental Sobriety

  1. We admitted that we were powerless over our consumption and that our lifestyles were environmentally unsustainable.
  2. We came to believe that our participation in neoliberal capitalism has led us to this insanity.
  3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of the planet.
  4. We made a searching and fearless inventory the needless stuff we’ve bought from Asia through Big Box stores.
  5. We admitted to ourselves, and to other human beings, the destructive nature of our consumption.
  6. We are entirely ready to renounce all these defects of mindless consumerism.
  7. We humbly asked the Third World to forgive us our shortcomings.
  8. We will make a list of all Third World countries we have harmed, and are willing to make amends to them all.
  9. We will make direct amends to aboriginal peoples’ cultures, wherever possible, with no exceptions.
  10. We will take a personal inventory of our daily energy consumption and promptly reduce it.
  11. We will seek through meditation to improve our contact with all humankind as we have offended them.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we will carry this message to western consumers and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

The Twelve Steps can be found on Wikipedia.

Immoral Drug Addicts?

“Addicts choose to take drugs and are responsible for the harms caused by their decisions. Why should I or society pay for their actions?”

The sentiment that blames addicts for their own misery is pervasive in social media, especially in the comments sections of news stories which speak to the rise in overdose deaths caused by fentanyl and carfentanyl.

Let’s assume for a moment that all people who abuse psychoactive substances are responsible for the harms they cause themselves and others. Our publicly expressed resentment should require that we keep in mind that tobacco smokers, the obese and physically unfit pose a greater economic burden on Canadians than all other users of criminalized drugs.

Lifestyle Choices that Cost Canadians

According to research in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, “the economic burden attributable to excess weight, tobacco smoking and physical inactivity in Canada in 2013 is $52.8 billion“. Two of the three preventable health problems are seen as addictive behaviours (smoking and excess weight from over-eating) and physical inactivity is a “lifestyle choice”. Here’s the breakdown:

  • $23.3 billion (44.1%) attributable to excess weight,
  • $18.7 billion to tobacco smoking (35.4%) and
  • $10.8 billion (20.4%) to physical inactivity


Costs of Legal versus Illegal Drugs to Canadians

The Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse reports that legal substances make up 79.3% of the total costs of drug abuse.


To assign to one group of drug users our moral condemnation and stigma while remaining largely silent about the majority who abuse more harmful but legal drugs is an exercise in cognitive dissonance.

We can reduce our irrational reactions to users of illegal drugs by recognizing that while drug addiction occurs as the result of choice, it’s little different from the “choice” made by those addicted to tobacco or high carbohydrate foods which cause obesity and heart disease. Hopefully this realization will make us more understanding and avoid treating illicit drug addicts like social pariahs deserving of our moral indignation.

35 Fentanyl Deaths: The Cost of Prohibition

Thirty-five people in British Columbia died from fentanyl in November. Nine died on one day. The responsibility for these 35 fentanyl deaths lies with our draconian prohibition laws.

Humans have altered their consciousness with substances since before Christ. Many of us do it today with state-sanctioned drugs like alcohol or prescription pills. People like to get high, creating a demand for substances which are not provided by the state. That’s the reality that we have to live with.

Cocaine sold legally in 1885

Some portion of the population is going to use criminalized substances for recreation, just as some will abuse tobacco and alcohol, despite the widespread knowledge of their respective harms.

To the degree that we criminalize substance use with the threat of punishment, the more we create the necessary conditions for a black market. A black market is a pure market because it is unrestrained by the state. Contracts and agreements are enforced by violence, intimidation and bribery. Market share is determined by the law of the jungle. Demand is not reduced by enforcement because the black market responds to counteract all and any of those efforts.

One of the responses to drug enforcement is for producers to  deliver “more bang for the buck”. This means packaging dosages in smaller units to avoid detection, and generating higher revenues for every gram produced. This type of drug marketing is little different than how liquor is sold in retail outlets: the tiny bottles by the till are not full of beer, but rather a few ounces of scotch, rye or tequila. Marketing one or two ounce bottles promotes impulse buying, is more profitable, and can be concealed by buyers for illegal consumption in public.

Powdered cocaine morphed into crack cocaine because of the pressure applied by law enforcement on the Colombian drug cartels in the 1980s. US drug traffickers distilled crack from cocaine to make smaller units which could be sold to consumers at relatively low prices (e.g., $5-$10 per hit). The Clinton administration responded by legislating higher penalties for possession of crack relative to larger amounts of the powdered version. Crack and cocaine usage dropped as law enforcement broke up the South American cartels, only to have amphetamines and their derivatives replace that market.

Fentanyl and carfentanil are the latest responses to the globalized market conditions imposed by law enforcement. Heightened security at distribution points requires greater stealth by producers of these opioids. However, the unregulated status of these drugs creates the conditions for the kind of fatalities that we are now witnessing.

Imagine a society where medical professionals informed our responses to the natural human tendency to alter consciousness. Opiates would be available, by prescription, to those who are “clinically indicated” to benefit from the drug. The problems associated with drug addiction will not disappear, but the criminal organizations which depend upon prohibition will be put out of work.



The Poverty of Punishment

Jail courtyard

The failure of punishment to deter harmful behaviour is glaringly apparent in the daily choices of tens of thousands of ordinary Canadians.

The claims are familiar: punishing the wrongdoing of others acts as a deterrent. We talk about miscreants “learning their lesson” or “getting their just deserts”, or if not them, the application of pain or discomfort “delivers a message to others” which generally prevents crime – should someone dare contemplate a criminal act. We believe these things based on our experiences and the stories we tell or hear.

So why doesn’t it work?

Punishment requires that unwanted behaviour is prevented from occurring or reoccurring; if the forbidden behaviour is not extinguished, then punishment did not occur. However, we explain recidivism (repeat offending) not so much by the utter failure of punishment, but by the absence of severity, certainty or a swiftness of its application. Punishment only has to be more strategically applied for it to deliver the behavioural changes which it promises. However, since the days when pick-pockets risked death while working the crowds at London’s public executions during the Tudor reign, the evidence is stacked against this shibboleth.

If deterrent effect of punishment is the threat of unpleasant consequences, then we have many thousands of citizens who fail to be punished for their socially irresponsible behaviours. Consider the number of people who willfully engage in one or more risky, life-threatening behaviours:

In all of the above harms, the risks are well-known to the population. But  the prevalence of these behaviours suggests that the consequences (or punishment) is ineffective when it comes in the form of an analogous outcome: lethal or injurious car accidents, cancer, heart disease, sexually transmitted diseases, or addiction.

If the punishment of these common and harmful behaviours does not deter “ordinary” Canadians, why should we expect it to fix “criminals”? Maybe we don’t understand how punishment “works”, or if it works at all.


Systemic Racism, Illegitimate Laws and an Uncritical Media: Obstacles to Drug Policy Reform


This brief statement is an elaboration of points made on behalf of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition at the University of Victoria on February 4, 2015.

Systemic Racism Then and Now

In order for laws to be regarded as legitimate, they must have broad social consensus otherwise they will be ignored by sizable parts of the population. Our current legal prohibitions are fundamentally illegitimate because of their origins in 1922 without the benefit of science and without parliamentary debate on the topic. Cannabis was uncritically categorized as a “narcotic” in the schedule of prohibited drugs (N. Boyd, 1991; Senate of Canada Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, 2002).

While most of us are familiar with the term “racism” as a form of prejudging the attributes of others on the basis of physical traits, a more accurate term is “racialization” – the social process of creating a stigmatizing category through human interaction. We can witness racialization in media stories which link criminalized drugs to minorities. But this is nothing new.

A review of the historical record tells us that the laws were passed in the contemporary racist context of the day (S. C. Boyd & Carter, 2014). Cannabis and opiate laws were supported by linking “dangerous drugs” to Chinese labourers who settled in Vancouver after the completion of the transnational railway. Race riots occurred in Vancouver in 1887 and 1907 which prompted McKenzie King, the Minister of Labour, to spearhead the criminalization of opiates in 1908. The Senate of Canada Special Committee on Illegal Drugs (2002) quotes King as follows:

[T]here are Chinese dens in Vancouver where opium is smoked and unspeakable infamies are practised, and no matter how meek and mild your Chinaman may look, no matter how gentle his voice or confiding his manner, Saturday night is almost certain to find him ‘doped’ in his bunk, weaving dreams under the poppy’s subtle spell (p. 211).

This racialization was also transmitted through the media in popular magazines and books such as Magistrate Emily Murphy’s (1922) book, The Black Candle.  She writes that

[p]ersons using this narcotic [marijuana] smoke the dried leaves of the plant, which has the effect of driving them completely insane. The addict loses all sense of moral responsibility. Addicts to this drug, while under its influence, are immune to pain, and could be severely injured without having any realization of their condition. While in this condition they become raving maniacs and liable to kill or indulge in any form of violence to other persons, using the most savage methods of cruelty without, as said before, any sense of moral responsibility. When coming under the influence of this narcotic, these victims present the most horrible condition imaginable. They are dispossessed of their natural and normal will power and their mental is that of idiots. If the drug is indulged in any great extent, it ends in the untimely death of the addict (pp. 332-333).

In the United States, the racist practices of drug control are far more insidious than in Canada. In her landmark book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander (2012) documents centuries of legal practices to keep African Americans “in their place”, from the era of slavery and lynching to contemporary practices such as judicially unsupervised policing, prosecutorial discretion, mandatory minimum sentencing, and the indelible penalties arising from being a “felon” in post-prison life. These systematic practices similarly affect Hispanics and Mexicans.

Canadians may today believe that we’ve transcended earlier racist sentiments, or are more socially inclusive than our neighbours to the south. However, Susan Boyd and Connie Carter argue in Killer Weed: Marijuana Grow Ops, Media and Justice (2014) that racism is alive and well in today’s media, largely due to the police and other vocal guardians of middle-class morality. Chinese, Italians, Jamaicans , Vietnamese, Aboriginal people, Asians, Hispanics and “outlaw motorcycle gangs” have been differentially blamed for the “drug problem” throughout the past 110 years.  These people are portrayed as “them” who are a threat to “us”, even though it’s large numbers of  the latter group who pay for and consume illicit drugs.

While racism is endemic in public discussions of drug use, a fundamental problem is that the criminalization of cannabis violates one of the most basic principles for making laws.

Illegitimate Laws

Our laws are founded on principles which must be honoured by the state, otherwise they will be widely seen as illegitimate. The British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), argued in On Liberty ((1859) 2012) “that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” Our government cannot defend laws against marijuana by claiming that it harms others because there is no evidence to support such a claim. The problems associated with marijuana are created by the demand for a black market product. Drive-by shootings, “grow-rips”, grow-ops with children present,  and a host of other evils are the result of illegitimate, racist laws.

Health Canada defends cannabis laws on the basis of harms which may occur to heavy smokers of the plant. For a comprehensive review of the effects of marijuana based on hundreds of studies, see “What has research over the past two decades revealed about the adverse health effects of recreational cannabis use?” (Hall, 2015). Using the results from longitudinal studies which track children from birth to adulthood, Hall concludes that with acute or severe use a) “cannabis does not produce fatal overdoses as do opioids; b) there is a doubling of the risk of car crashes if cannabis users drive while intoxicated. This risk increases substantially if users also consume intoxicating doses of alcohol; c) maternal cannabis use during pregnancy modestly reduces birth weight” (p. 30; italics added). There are harms associated with marijuana for some people, but nothing which cannot be regulated much like we do with tobacco and alcohol (and with varying degrees of success, as argued later).

The science reviewed by Hall (2015) concludes that “regular cannabis users can develop a dependence syndrome, the risks of which are around 1 in 10 of all cannabis users and 1 in 6 among those who start in adolescence”. This same group “double[s] their risks of experiencing psychotic symptoms and disorders, especially if they have a personal or family history of psychotic disorders, and if they initiate cannabis use in their mid-teens”. To repeat, this is a group of regular or chronic users who are more likely to experience these effects. It does not apply to occasional or recreational users but the law, however, punishes them equally.

Hall (2015) also finds that “regular adolescent cannabis users have lower educational attainment than  non-using peers” (p. 30), largely because of a lower IQ – about 8 points below the mean, or one-half of a standard deviation below their peers (p. 24). Important qualifications are made about this finding:

[T]hese effects on IQ were found only in the small proportion of cannabis  users who initiated in adolescence and persisted in daily use throughout their 20s and into their 30s. No effects were found in those who initiated later or in daily users who ceased use earlier in adulthood” (Hall, 2015, p. 24 emphasis added).

That cannabis may be harmful to members of vulnerable groups is an argument for its regulation, not criminalization. Our present laws create the market conditions where dosage and quality are unknown; marijuana must be purchased in a black market run by criminal organizations. There is a growing body of research which shows that increased drug law enforcement is associated with higher rates of gun violence and higher homicide rates in Canada (British Columbia Centre for Health Excellence, 2010; Kerr, Small, & Wood, 2005; Stop the Violence BC Coalition, 2011; Werb et al., 2011).

An Uncritical Media

A major obstacle to reforming our cannabis laws are vested bureaucratic interests, mostly in law enforcement but also include a cadre of lawyers with lucrative contracts with the federal government to prosecute cannabis offences (Oneil, 2002). The status quo rewards police with human and material resources, prestige, and the imagery of “expertise” – despite the relatively low educational requirements for entry into its ranks (e.g., the Mounties do not require Grade 12 for new recruits). There are a few academics who engage in paid research for the RCMP and supports the latter’s drug-enforcement agenda (S. C. Boyd & Carter, 2014, pp. 64, 134) or, in the past, have undermined public health initiatives which address opiate addiction (Fournier, 2008; Stueck, 2008).

To whom does the media generally contact for information on drugs? The nearest police spokesperson is only a phone call away, or police news releases can be uncritically accepted as “facts”. Unbiased and in-depth investigative journalism is expensive, and very few news sources meet the quality of The Guardian. Many journalists don’t know the difference between the merits of a single study, a review of the scientific literature, or a meta-analysis such as Hall’s (2015) recent assessment of cannabis and health outcomes. Not surprisingly, the public can be misinformed with conflicting information on the nature and scope of the so-called “drug problem”.

Repeated over and over, the media’s message is about marijuana being linked to dangers of drive-by shootings, life-threatening conditions in grow-ops (from poor wiring, mold, weapons, explosives, booby-traps), and declining property values. It’s not long before many Canadians are sufficiently indoctrinated to believe the official discourse of racialized drug myths. In reference to their content analysis of media stories on marijuana grow-ops, Boyd and Carter (2014) argue that

[w]hat remains striking over the 15 year span of our media project is the hyperbole and unsubstantiated claims about marijuana grow ops and organized crime expressed by a small group of spokespeople, mostly RCMP, police, and some government officials, and reported, for the most part uncritically, by the print media.… Yet internationally and at home, a wealth of research points to prohibitionist drug policy and law-and-order initiatives as fuelling the drug market… There is no empirical evidence demonstrating that harsh drug laws and penalties deter marijuana production or any other type of drug offense. Indeed, a growing body of scientific research reveals that drug prohibition and increases in drug law enforcement result in higher rates of drug market violence and fail to reduce the prevalence of drug use (p. 113; emphasis added).

Evidence-based success in controlling the deadliest drug (tobacco)

Canada appears to have excellent health policy outcomes to address the 40,000 annual deaths attributed to tobacco use. Through regulation and public education, we have achieved remarkable results in deterring young people from becoming addicted to the narcotic found in tobacco. (Nicotine is a narcotic while cannabis is not.)

According to Health Canada, in 1985 35% of 15-19 year olds were tobacco smokers. In 2012, only 16% of the same group were smokers. For youth aged 20-24, 43% were smokers in 1985, but in 2012 only 20% of this age group smoked tobacco. This worthwhile health objective has been met without arresting anyone for possessing, trafficking, or producing tobacco. It appears that tobacco regulation, compulsory packaging with disturbing imagery, and education in our schools have resulted in noteworthy gains for all Canadians.

LEAP Lobbies for an end to Prohibition

LEAP does not endorse any particular policy for stopping the war on drugs. We are committed to lobbying for an end to the waste and human suffering associated with anachronistic drug law policies. However, we are aware of the positive outcomes where prohibition policies have been replaced with health models (Economist, 2009; McCaffery, 2010).

The positive health outcomes with respect to tobacco control might be applied to a regulated cannabis market. While the details have to be worked out, cannabis can be sold to adults through government-regulated and supervised agents. Education directed at young people about all psychoactive substances must be informed by science and delivered by qualified teachers. New policies should be informed and updated by continuous evaluation research from jurisdictions where cannabis has been legalized or decriminalized (e.g., Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Portugal, etc.). In this way we can move towards more humanitarian and effective drug policies.


Alexander, M. (2012). The New Jim Crow. New York: New Press, The.

Boyd, N. (1991). High society: legal and illegal drugs in Canada. Toronto, Ont: Key Porter Books.

Boyd, S. C., & Carter, C. (2014). Killer weed: marijuana grow ops, media, and justice. Toronto [Ontario]: University of Toronto Press.

British Columbia Centre for Health Excellence. (2010). Effect of Drug Law Enforcement on Drug-Related Violence: Evidence from a Scientific Review.  March 2010. from http://www.cfenet.ubc.ca/publications/effect-drug-law-enforcement-drug-related-violence-evidence-scientific-review-icsdp-repo

Fournier, S. (2008). Insite report slammed; AIDS expert calls RCMP study ‘bogus’. The Province p. A.16.

Hall, W. (2015). What has research over the past two decades revealed about the adverse health effects of recreational cannabis use? Addiction (Abingdon, England), 110(1), 19-35. doi: 10.1111/add.12703

Kerr, T., Small, W., & Wood, E. (2005). The public health and social impacts of drug market enforcement: A review of the evidence. International Journal of Drug Policy, 16(4), 210-220. doi: DOI 10.1016/j.drugpo.2005.04.005

McCaffrey, H. (2010). A bitter pill to swallow: Portugal’s lessons for drug law reform in New Zealand. Victoria University of Wellington Law Review, 40(4), 771.

Mill, J. S. ((1859) 2012). On Liberty. Lanham: Start Publishing LLC.

Murphy, E. F. (1922). The Black Candle. Toronto T. Allen.

Oneil, P. (2002). B.C. law firms raked in a disproportionate chunk of business. National Post, p. 1.

Senate of Canada Special Committee on Illegal Drugs. (2002). Cannabis: Our position for a Canadian public policy; Summary Report.  Ottawa.

Stop the Violence BC Coalition. (2011). How Not to Protect Community Health and Safety: What the Government’s own Data say about the Effects of Cannabis Prohibition (Vol. 2). Vancouver, B.C.

Stueck, W. (2008). AIDS researcher blasts RCMP for undermining Insite. The Globe and Mail, p. A.8.

Treating, not punishing; Portugal’s drug policy. (2009). The Economist, 392(8646), 43. http://www.economist.com/node/14309861

Werb, D., Rowell, G., Guyatt, G., Kerr, T., Montaner, J., & Wood, E. (2011). Effect of drug law enforcement on drug market violence: A systematic review. International Journal of Drug Policy, 22(2), 87-94. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2011.02.002

Solutions to Crime, Part 1: Peacekeeping Canada

110519-N-NY820-218 MANTA, Ecuador (May 19, 2011) Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Courtney Arthur paints a wall at Angelica Flores Zambrano school during a Continuing Promise 2011 community service event. Continuing Promise is a five-month humanitarian assistance mission to the Caribbean, Central and South America. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric C. Tretter/Released)
Photo credit: US Navy "Creative Commons" license http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode
Peacekeeping for the Public Good

In my last post, I suggested that there are features shared by the RCMP and the Hells Angels. Both are identifiable organizations or “gangs” which attract young people by offering excitement, camaraderie and the prospect of status and material rewards. Canada can fund its own gang several times larger than our national police force through “incentivized” military service. Done properly, this national organization can draw recruits by appealing to young people’s social and individual needs. Here’s what it can look like…

While students are in Grade 10, they are offered an opportunity to join the military as peacekeepers, provided they satisfactorily complete Grade 12. Volunteers will join “peacekeeping cadets”, showing up on Saturday mornings and at least one evening a week at a designated school or other public facility. They will be provided initial training in first aid, rescue, and survival skills in mock situations. The prospect of becoming full-time members of Peacekeeping Canada (PC) after graduation must be reinforced during their last two years of high school. At about age 15, this opportunity will counteract the short time horizons which are characteristic of many youth in this developmental stage. Above all, their training experiences must be meaningful and led by role models who are competent educators. Once students graduate from high school, they are offered these incentives in exchange for a two-year commitment Peacekeeping Canada:

  • Bi-weekly pay at minimum wage and residency in existing barracks or those which can be renovated or constructed by the first cohorts of peacekeepers.
  • The prospect of earning a two-year “Apprenticeship Diploma” in applied fields such as solar and wind-based power generation, electronics, construction, hazardous waste collection, parks and recreation maintenance, fisheries, forestry, or agriculture, subject to local opportunities.
  • Applied experience as peacekeepers who have as their mandate the protection of the environment, enhancing public space, and other worthwhile projects.
  • Travel to other parts of Canada for public works or for providing assistance in emergencies such as floods and tornadoes.
  • A bonus of $10,000 for completion of the two-year program and paid tuition the first two years of university or a four-year trade program. The second two years of education would be funded with low-interest or interest-free loans. Alternatively, graduates can remain with the Peacekeepers and fulfill leadership and training roles without the requirement to live in residency.

The two-year experience will focus on developing interpersonal skills, cooperative activities with teams and groups, engaging in worthwhile local community activities, health awareness, and physical fitness. Peacekeeping leaders will reinforce the values of cooperation and facilitate supportive communication. A sense of personal responsibility and service to Canada must be a salient feature of recruit’s education and applied training.

The benefits returned by PC would be in the form of lower crime rates, health costs and increased tourism as nation-wide public works improvements add value to Canada’s natural environment and urban spaces. The money earned by the recruit’s labour will be circulated back into local economies rather than being “outsourced” like the practice in many private sector companies.

The logistics of this plan must be addressed, but some general guidelines for implementation could include:

  • Local direction of Peacekeeping Canada’s  public works through provincial boards of directors which include partnerships with the private sector;
  • Continual and ongoing evaluation of the two-year peacekeeping service in terms of implementation and outcome of recruits and benefits to local economies;
  • Funding for Peacekeeping Canada will come from taxing profits made through currency exchanges, much like the “Tobin Tax” as proposed by Noble Laureate James Tobin in 1972 and recently endorsed by Bill Gates.

The cost of Peacekeeping Canada can also be supplemented through hemp farming, manufacturing and sales. That’s Part 2 in a five-part series of ideas for dealing with crime in Canada, forthcoming.

– John

RCMP and Hells Angels: Not as Different as We Think!

A lawyer practicing in Nanaimo once told me, “There’s only two gangs in town. One has a clubhouse and the other has a headquarters”.

The lawyer’s views were informed by what he considered to be the group’s ability to avoid convictions for breaking the law. When I later thought about what he said, the similarities between the organizations stirred my sociological imagination. As outrageous as the comparison may seem, there’s an element of truth to his comparison. Consider, for example, the following elements of these two social groups:

  • Both can be identified through their highly visible ‘uniforms’ which display paramilitary symbols and nomenclature indicating the organizational rank and status of their members.
  • The RCMP crest and Hells Angels insignia are copyright protected.
  • The RCMP and HA have fortress-style work/meeting places which exclude members of the public except on official business or by invitation.
  • Both groups elicit public deference – if not a certain element of fear.
  • Each group has a sophisticated process to screen membership. Members can be sanctioned by the group for rule infractions, up to and including banning members.
  • Both groups have a process for evicting members for breaking the rules – even if they have not broken the law.
  • The groups have public events (e.g., the RCMP Musical Ride and Nanaimo’s ‘Angels Acres’) to generate public support and funds for their respective organizations.
  • The Mounties and the HA have public relations designates who speak on behalf of their organizations.
  • Both groups have internal, specialized elite squads which protect key leaders (e.g., the ‘Nomads’ and Prime Minister Harper’s RCMP security detail).
  • Some young men aspire to members of either group, attracted to the social status and potential for upward mobility within the organizations.
  • Both groups raise money for charity (e.g., “Cops for Cancer” and participation with a Christmas “toy ride”).
  • Both organizations claim their members are generally law-abiding except for the occasional “bad apple”.
  • Both groups use force, including lethal force, to achieve their respective organizational mandates.
  • Members of each group are relatively insulated from conviction for homicides involved in the course of their activities.
  • The groups both stage ‘memorial rides’ for their ‘fallen members’.

There is something which attracts people to groups like these which offer camaraderie, public respect, and material security. The “gang”, broadly conceived, can be any identifiable status group including teachers, physicians, professors, and trades people such as mechanics and electricians (and their respective unions or professional organizations).

The sense of belonging and identity which gangs offer people can be developed to help foster a safer community. More on that topic in my next post: How compulsory military service will drive crime downward and foster healthy communities.

My apologies if I have offended members of either group with this comparison.

The Immorality of Enforcing Marijuana Laws

The police should now admit that it is immoral for them to enforce the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) as it pertains to marijuana. Laws must be justified on some moral basis in order for them to be supported by the public. Without support, our police lose the moral authority to enforce cannabis laws.

Over 70% of British Columbians support research to evaluate the regulation of cannabis (from an Angus Reid poll conducted earlier this month[1]). This measure of public opinion is consistent a similar poll conducted in the fall of 2012 which indicated that a majority of Canadians (57%) are ready to see marijuana legalized.


The law enforcement community influences Canadian’s perceptions about the evils of marijuana, richly sprinkled with war metaphors, the portrayal of cannabis producers and smokers as deviants, and the resultant chaos should the public contemplate legally tolerant alternatives.

One of the challenges for the police is to convince those of us (especially parents) who lived through the 70s and 80s that today’s pot is “more harmful”. They frequently tell us that the active ingredient in marijuana (THC) is found in higher concentrations when grown under the tender care of hydroponic lights. There’s at least two problems with this claim.

First, the insistence that higher THC concentrations makes marijuana dangerous is like arguing that whiskey is more dangerous than beer because it contains proportionately more alcohol. Cannabis users will smoke less to enjoy the same effects – just like those of us who drink a smaller quantity of Scotch than wine but still achieve the same cognitive pleasures.

It’s a tragic irony that more Canadians have died or been injured from the enforcement of marijuana laws, than from any harms caused by the herb itself. The sporadic gun violence in Lower Mainland streets is the direct consequence of criminalizing a product which the public demands in a marketplace where the government has surrendered its controlling shares to the business of criminal organizations.

Secondly, the harms created by cannabis are the result of its legal status , not its pharmacological properties which, for most users, are relatively benign according to the research examined by our own Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs in 2002. Any negative effects associated with cannabis can be mediated, according to a recent 2011 article in the Canadian Journal of Public Health by researchers with Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction at Simon Fraser University.

The law creates opportunities for a  black market and endangers the lives of citizens and police. The law is wrong. The law itself must be seen as criminal because of its consequences and must not be enforced by the police.

To have impact on cannabis markets, Parliament must regulate the domestic cultivation of marijuana so that the incentive for organized crime evaporates, except perhaps for a black market to supply smokers south of the 49th Parallel (except in those states which have already legalized cannabis).

The morally preferable alternative to the current failure of our so called “drug war” would be for police to take a bold stand like that of RCMP Commissioner Aylesworth Bowen Perry during Prohibition in 1917.

“No instruction whatsoever has been issued by me in regard to [enforcing prohibition],” he reminded his senior officers in Alberta. Unless otherwise notified, Perry told them unequivocally, prohibition “is not to be enforced by the Mounted Police”[2].

Declaring alcohol prohibition “unenforceable”, Commissioner Perry subsequently cancelled RCMP contracts to Alberta and Saskatchewan.

It’s unlikely that the same pronouncements about the abject failure of our drug laws will be heard from senior police officers anytime soon. Their interest is in advancing their careers and prestige in a police subculture where “takedowns” and “busting grow shows” get more kudos than informed political activism within the ranks. Consequently, we must elect politicians who promise to put an end to the violence associated with the unregulated distribution of cannabis.

According to the latest Angus Reid poll on the topic, 44% of respondents will have more favourable opinions of BC politicians who support “an ethically approved research study seeking to evaluate the impacts of a taxation (i.e., legalization) and regulation strategy to control adult cannabis use”.

Politicians can give back to the police some of their moral authority by not requiring them to enforce laws which cause far more harm than good.

It’s what we the people expect from you.

[1] The question went as follows:

Preamble. Many U.S. states are reforming their marijuana laws including Washington state, which has legalized the adult use of marijuana. British Columbia has experienced major unintended consequences resulting from marijuana prohibition including the proliferation of illegal marijuana grow ops and related organized crime concerns. Researchers in B.C. are interested to conduct a research trial to assess if a strictly regulated (i.e. legal) system for adult marijuana purchases could cut profits to organized crime, raise tax revenue and better protect young people from the free availability of marijuana that exists under prohibition. The study would be ethically and federally approved, involve a pilot site in one community, require key stakeholder support and be halted if unanticipated harms emerged.

Question 1. Do you support or oppose a B.C.research trial conducted by local experts and health scientists aiming to evaluate whether the taxation (i.e., legalization) and strict regulation of adult marijuana use could reduce profits to organized crime, raise tax revenue and better protect young people from the availability of marijuana that exists under prohibition?

[2] Rich Mole, Whisky Wars of the Canadian West: Fifty Years of Battles Against the Bottle, Heritage House, 2012, p. 78.