, February 9 2012, by Derek Amba

Canada needs to give up the war on drugs and start treating drug use as a health and social issue rather than something for the criminal justice system to deal with, according to a policy group that was formally launched Thursday.

The Canadian Drug Policy Coalition is, among other things, calling for the government to decriminalize drug use and not stand in the way of harm-reduction programs, such as safe-injection sites.

"In western legal systems, the criminal law has long been seen as the instrument of last resort to be used when other means of social control has failed," Eugene Oscapella, a University of Ottawa criminology professor and member of the group's policy committee, said at a news conference on Parliament Hill. "Unfortunately, in the case of certain drugs — cannabis, ecstasy, cocaine, heroin and hundreds of other substances for that matter — it has been used as the principal vehicle of social control."

The coalition argued this approach does not reduce drug use, but creates more problems such as making criminals out of drug users, creating a lucrative black market for real criminals and preventing measures that could help those struggling with addictions.

Oscapella said Bill C-10 — crime legislation already approved by Parliament and under review in the Senate — would make things even worse. He estimated that 10 to 20 per cent of his students would be affected by new provisions relating to the sharing of drugs in areas frequented by youth.

"If, under the legislation, one of my students was to pass a tab of ecstasy to a friend on campus — this is for no money, just sharing with a friend — that is the offence of trafficking and it's occurring in an area normally frequented by youth. Mandatory minimum penalty (is) two years (in a) federal penitentiary," he said, noting that students as young as 17 are common at university.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, in response to this group's assertions, said the government's drug policies are focused on penalizing drug dealers, not users.

"We are not looking to go after substance-abuse victims or experimenting teenagers," he said in a statement emailed by his staff. "We are making no changes to the laws with regards to simple possession. The Safe Streets and Communities Act goes after the source of the illicit drug trade — the drug traffickers."

Other countries' failed experiences should be proof that a law-enforcement-focused approach to drug policy does not work, coalition members said.

Oscapella said the United States has spent about $1 trillion on its "war on drugs" since it was launched in 1971. Donald MacPherson, director of the coalition, added that 50,000 people in Mexico have been killed by drug cartels since the government there tried to crack down on them in 2006.

"Mexico is an example that strips naked any attempt at justifying our current approach that emphasizes drug prohibition over a health, social and human rights approach," MacPherson said.

The group argues that drug injection sites such as Insite in Vancouver save lives. Efforts of the federal government to shut Insite down last year were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

"Leadership at all levels within the community is needed to implement a broad range of harm-reduction approaches that will indeed save lives and help people stay as healthy as possible while they struggle with an addiction," MacPherson said.

Keep up-to-date with drug policy developments by subscribing to the IDPC Monthly Alert