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.


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.



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