Of all the challenges we face, locally and globally, Canada’s Parliament seems to offer little that is relevant or original. But, oddly enough, Prime Minister Stephen Harper does make one thing clear: “legalizing drugs is not on our agenda.” This statement brought giddy cheers from his caucus this week.
Whether through Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau, or Rob Ford, Canadians have been grossly misinformed about what’s at stake in drug policy.
The sad part is that this isn’t about petty politics in this increasingly insular country. It is about the ongoing violence in Mexico and Central America; billions of taxpayer money wasted on “anti-drug” militarization efforts; corruption that reaches the highest levels of state institutions; and those who end-up with lives ruined.
A real drug debate would discuss the social and political dimensions of the issue, both in our communities and internationally. It can all seem complicated—the chain from narcotics production in the Andes Region of South America, trafficking through Central America and Mexico, to users in Canada and the U.S.
Now valued in the hundreds of billions, the illicit global drug trade is far too powerful for any one country to tackle, but will hold entire societies back unless confronted.
Harper even admitted in Cartagena, Colombia last year, “The current approach is not working. But it is not clear what we should do.”
However, there is one basic principle that can serve as a starting point for reform: in the “war on drugs,” it is the most vulnerable, the weakest links on the chain, who are penalized the most.
Like most wars, it is a war waged to benefit the rich and powerful at the expense of ordinary people. As a matter of justice and common sense, this needs to change.
On the production side, it is mostly poor farmers in South America who are forced into drug cultivation because they have no other options. Aerial fumigation (through multi-billion dollar programs like the Clinton Administration’s Plan Colombia) have destroyed their crops and polluted the land while real rural development has been neglected.
The trafficking and drug violence through Central America and Mexico ensnares those living in poverty. In Mexico alone, 40 million people live in poverty, and it should come as no surprise that drug cartels have an endless workforce of mules, assassins, and extortionists who have few other options for survival.
In fact, the vast majority of the tens of thousands killed in Mexico’s drug violence are not police, military, or wealthy drug lords, but civilians.
On the consumption side in our communities, it is again the vulnerable who suffer most. In the U.S.’s bulging prisons, about half of all incarcerations are for non-violent drug related offences, with African Americans disproportionately targeted.
Young black people are ten times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes than white people, even though drug use among whites is actually much higher.
In Canada, the numbers tell a similar story. Canada’s Correctional Investigator, Howard Sapers, has noted that Aboriginals represent four percent of the population, but over 20 percent are incarcerated.
Black Canadians only make up 2.5 percent of the population, but over nine percent of the prison population is black. According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, about a quarter of the sentences in the federal system are drug-related.
Nevertheless, Canada is spending billions of taxpayer money to expand the criminal justice system through legislation such as “The Safe Streets and Communities Act”,,which critics say targets marginalized users and people with disabilities, while doing little to confront money-laundering and organized crime.
Amidst corporate tax giveaways and regressive social policy, we’ve seen little in the way of job creation programs, education, or community investment that gives dignified options to young adults who are most at risk of developing life-altering mental health and substance abuse problems.
At the international level, National Defense reports spending $282.2 million in 2013 on Operation Caribbe, a program to support U.S. drug interdiction missions, including deploying military aircraft, naval vessels, and submarines throughout the Caribbean and East Pacific.
The Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development also contributes millions more for police training and other futile anti-drug programs, while funding is cut for poverty alleviation efforts that could address the root of the problem in the region.
At the diplomatic level, Canada is resisting calls to implement reforms through multi-lateral agencies such as the UN or OAS (Organization of American States), and was one of the few countries to vote against a 2012 motion at the UN to have a General Assembly special session on global drug policy in 2016.
Drug policy may seem complicated, but, in a sense, there is nothing complicated about this—it’s simply wrong and needs to change. It is time for true drug reform that is rooted in Canadian values of common sense and compassion.