Eugene Oscapella was in town the other day. He's a lawyer, a teacher and a founding member of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy, and he is worth listening to any day of the week.
His audience was made up of people who work on the front lines with the drug users of Toronto; there were also some drug users in the room.
A bit of background: the Senate is now discussing Bill C-15, a piece of crime legislation that will, if passed, provide mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug-related offences. Oscapella began his talk by drawing attention to a quote from a cocaine user:
"You might just be bored, or alone. Everybody was welcome into the club of disaffection. And if the high didn't solve whatever it was that was getting you down, it would at least help you laugh at the world's ongoing folly and see you through all the hypocrisy and bullshit and cheap moralism."
Had that man been in Canada, and had he been caught with cocaine, then according to the provision of our proposed crime bill he would have been tossed in jail for two years.
We'd all like the worst aspect of the drug problem to go away. Many people - politicians most of all - think that the best thing to do is to keep drugs on the criminal side of the ledger and to threaten people with tougher penalties.
Here's the problem, according to Oscapella and almost everyone else who looks at drugs with a clear eye: The first result of the prohibition of any substance - alcohol, tobacco, cocaine - is the creation of a lucrative black market.
Oscapella cited some figures from Pakistan in the 1990s, where a kilo of opium cost $90 to produce on the farm. By the time it is processed and hits the street as heroin, that kilo is worth $290,000.
Drugs are less about getting high, and more about making huge pots of money. As for risk, it is possible to fit enough heroin to supply this country for a year in the back of a cube van; a year's supply of cocaine will fit in a shipping container. How many shipping containers and cube vans come into Canada in any given year? What's the cost of a timely bribe?
In other words, criminal law has created a lucrative black market, and criminal law is powerless to stop it.
The new crime bill provides mandatory minimum sentences of one year, under certain circumstances, for the sale of marijuana; two years for the sale of heroin, meth or cocaine near schools or near kids; and two years for running a marijuana grow-op.
Oscapella said, "If you're a mom-and-pop producer of marijuana, mandatory minimums will scare you out of business." Yeah, so? "Organized crime will step in; the government has moved the competition out of the way."
This is an unintended consequence of the worst kind: Banning a substance makes it wildly lucrative; punishing the small fry makes it easier for the bad guys to do business.
Alas, the new bill fails to address the causes, and the consequences, of the harmful use of drugs. We are budgeting billions for new jails, but we are spending peanuts on the treatment for drug users.
Oscapella said, I think tellingly, "No parent thinks, `If my kid gets arrested, I want him in jail. I want him to have a criminal record.'" He also said that the best approach to ending our drug problem is the medical health model. It worked with tobacco.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
November 2, 2009