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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
Volume 3 - Public Policy Options

 Chapter 21 - Public policy options

Ineffectiveness of the current approach


No clearly defined federal or national strategy exists. Some provinces have developed strategies while others have not. There has been a lot of talk but little significant action. In the absence of clear indicators accepted by all stakeholders to assess the effectiveness of Canadian public policy, it is difficult to determine whether action that has been taken is effective. Given that policy is geared to reducing demand (i.e. drug-use rates) and supply (by reducing the availability of drugs and pushing up drug prices), both these indicators may be used.

A look at trends in cannabis use, both among adults and young people, forces us to admit that current policies are ineffective. In chapter 6, we saw that trends in drug-use are on the increase. If our estimates do indeed reflect reality, no fewer that 2 million Canadians aged between 18 and 65 have used cannabis at least once over the past 12 months, while at least 750,000 young people between the ages of 14 and 17 use cannabis at least once per month; one third of them on a daily basis. This proportion appears, at least in the four most highly-populated provinces, to be increasing. Statistics suggest that both use and at-risk use is increasing.

Of course, we must clearly establish whether the ultimate objective is a drug-free society, at least one free of cannabis, or whether the goal is to reduce at-risk behaviour and abuse. This is an area of great confusion, since Canadian public policy continues to use vague terminology and has failed to establish whether it focuses on substance abuse as the English terminology used in several documents seems to suggest or on drug-addiction as indicated by the French terminology.

It is all very well to criticize the “trivialization” of cannabis in Canada to “explain” increases in use but it must also be established why, if this is indeed the case, this trivialization has occurred. It is also important to identify the root cause of this trivialization against a backdrop of mainly anti-drug statements. The courts and their lenient attitude might be blamed for this. Perhaps the judiciary is at the forefront of those responsible for cannabis policies and the enforcement of the law. It must also be determined whether sentences are really as lenient as some maintain. A major issue to be addressed is whether harsher sentences would indeed be an effective deterrent given that the possibility of being caught by the police is known to be a much greater deterrent. Every year, over 20,000 Canadians are arrested for cannabis possession. This figure might be as high as 50,000 depending on how the statistics are interpreted. This is too high a number for this type of conduct. However, it is laughable number when compared to the three million people who have used cannabis over the past 12 months. We should not think that the number of arrests might be significantly increased even if billions of extra dollars were allocated to police enforcement. Indeed, such a move should not even be considered.

A look at the availability and price of drugs forces us to admit that supply-reduction policies are ineffective. Throughout Canada, above all in British Columbia and Québec, the cannabis industry is growing, flooding local markets, irritating the United States and lining the pockets of criminal society. Drug prices have not fallen but quality has improved, especially in terms of THC content – even if we are sceptical of the reported scale of this improvement. Yet, police organizations already have greater powers and latitude – especially since the September 11, 2001 tragedy– in relation to drugs than in any other criminal matter. In addition, enforcement now accounts for over 90% of all illegal drug-related spending. To what extent do we want to go further down this road?

Clearly, current approaches are ineffective and inefficient – it is throwing taxpayers’ money down the drain on a crusade that is not warranted by the danger posed by the substance. It has been maintained that drugs, including cannabis, are not dangerous because they are illegal but rather illegal because they are dangerous. This is perhaps true of other types of drugs, but not cannabis. We should state this clearly once and for all, for public good, stop our crusade.



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