Harper's One Sided War on Drugs
Feb 11, 2011

Harper's One Sided War on Drugs

The issue of what to do about drug crimes is becoming an increasingly political issue, with the possibility of being a major issue in the next election. Solutions to this problem - and indeed there are questions as to what the scope of the problem even is - are multifaceted. Unfortunately, the approach of the Harper administration is largely one sided and focuses on punitive actions such as incarceration.

We must establish at first how we are going to measure the success or failure of a particular policy. For our purposes we don't have to be overly precise, but this metric includes decreased hard drug usage, addiction rates, correlated medical problems like AIDS, correlated societal problems like non-drug crime and economic costs for incarceration, medical care and costs of programs that combat or deal with drugs. What is important is that there are numerous ways we can measure the societal consequences of high drug use and we can take a policy like increased incarceration times and see how it fairs. Punitive measures for punishment's sake are emphatically absent, and the aim is to find policies that benefit society at large in addition to the addicts themselves. Proposals that help either at the expense of the other are discouraged.

Consider Vancouver's safe injection site, where addicts can get free use of clean needles under nurse supervision and with access to basic medical care as well as references to drug addiction centers and other resources. The program has been a resounding success with Vancouver enjoying a 6% decrease in the correlated factor of AIDS cases while North American cities experienced on average a 6% increase. Several other indicators such as violence among women (often very high for addicted women) dropping in the district.

Tragically, the Harper government has been blocking attempts to expand this program in Vancouver and other Canadian cities. The program can be considered according to the established metric. That it provides an enormous benefit to drug addicts is clear and measurable. However, we should also ask whether it benefits society. The average cost to the Canadian health care system of one AIDS patient is $750,000. Thus the $50M that prevents an estimated 400 AIDS patients saves an unbelievable $300M dollars. Not to mention the 400 lives who don't have AIDS. We can see this policy then as one with a significant positive return on investment for society at large.

Contrast that policy, which is bring blocked largely for ideological reasons, with the defining legislation the Harper government is pushing through that establishes mandatory minimum sentences for a wide range of drug related crimes. The net effect is to increase incarceration rates and lengths for drug crimes with the idea that this entirely supply side pressures will decrease net drug use. There is an immediate cost associated with this policy namely the increased costs of incarceration. The parliamentary budget office estimates 5 billion dollars in increased costs federally and roughly the same for the provinces (Harper's estimates are less than half this). The construction of new incarceration facilities and increases in personnel have already occurred under this administration. Even after one gets over this monstrous hole, there is significant question as to how effective this policy will be at reducing drug rates. Effectiveness of incarceration deterrents tend to level off with diminishing returns and drug use is driven by demand side pressures.

Portugal represents an interesting, and seemingly successful possible alternative. Portugal decriminalized drugs in 2001, introducing a series of policies where one was offered therapy and other services opposed to jail time. This was an entirely demand side policy, trying to reduce demand for drugs. And it worked! Portugal now enjoys the lowest rates of marijuana usage in the E.U. at 10% lifetime over age 15 (compared to 39%, over age 12 for the US). Numerous measures of drug use, drug use among teens, deaths, and various correlated factors such as AIDS morbidity are all declining.

Contrast this again with the US drug wars, both in their country and in Mexico and other places in South America. This war focuses again entirely on the supply side trying to go after the distributors and producers of hard drugs. The result has been after 40 years for a war that costs over a trillion dollars and has failed to meet a single objective; indeed, it has had increases in most of the metrics.

The point I wish to establish is the following: the types of proposals to address drug issues are multifaceted. We should not limit our attention to a small range of proposals, or even to just supply side proposals. The level of detail provided in this post doesn't prove we should unconditionally follow Vancouver or Portugal's models. It doesn't prove we shouldn't follow Harper's or the US's models. But it does indicate there is serious potential in the former and serious problems in the later that we should take into consideration. What the Harper government is doing is taking this entirely unilateral perspective which runs the risk of significant opportunist costs and thinking that incarceration is the sole solution to drugs and hence increasing these rates must be the exclusive solution.

One thing that I think would help is the rephrasing of drug issues as public health issue. There is a sentiment that punitive action is deserved for its own sake. Because drug users are "criminals", they deserve incarceration. If instead we consider drug addiction at least partially as a health issue, just as we would if they had diabetes, we can begin to look for solutions that try to ask "How best can we solve this public health question" opposed to "How can we punish the criminals". 

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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