A conservative think-tank argued against continuing the war on drugs on the grounds it destroys neighbourhoods, enriches organized crime, corrupts law-enforcement officials and wastes at least $2 billion a year in police and prosecution costs. Instead of an aggressive law-enforcement approach, “Sensible Solutions to the Urban Drug Problem” offers other possibilities, such as more drug treatment centres, increased education, harm-reduction strategies and even outright legalization.
Canadian liberals have long supported some measure of decriminalization, but the right is split along libertarian/social conservative lines. Vic Toews, the Canadian Alliance’s justice critic, thinks the war on drugs has never captured the imagination of most Canadian conservatives because Canadians “have had the luxury of sitting back and looking at the failure of that war” in the U.S. On that point, Fred McMahon, the director of the Fraser Institute’s social affairs centre, believes the American drug war “has been tied to racial and cultural issues that haven’t bedevilled the Canadian right.” Patrick Basham, an economist at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., adds there is a “religious element, and a moralistic approach to public policy in American conservatism that just isn’t part of the Canadian experience.”
Messrs. McMahon and Basham insist that, contrary to arguments put forth by anti-drug warriors, legalization would not lead to a much greater use of narcotics by the general public. Mr. McMahon cites the Netherlands, where marijuana has been more or less legal for several decades. “Heroin use in the Netherlands is actually below the European average,” says Mr. McMahon, “which means the argument that marijuana leads to hard drugs doesn’t really hold up.” He adds that the impact on Dutch society has not been all that problematic. “Legalized marijuana hasn’t destroyed or eroded Dutch society, or hurt their economy.”
On the other hand, Rory Leishman wrote in his London Free Press column that the Fraser Institute report represents the same “wrong-headed libertarian view [that] people have a right to…hire a prostitute and view the filthiest pornography.” He added that American sociologist James Q. Wilson estimates the price of drugs would fall “about 50-fold,” and general drug consumption could “increase about fivefold” if illegal drugs were legalized. Society could face an army of “unemployable addicts who would commit even more robberies” than they do today.
Similarly, Eric Voth of the U.S.-based International Drug Strategy Institute argues the drug war has, indeed, made a difference in drug use. “Compare [drug] use today with that of the late ’70s when there was not a drug war. Use today is less than half,” argues the opponent of legalization. He predicts that, if illegal drugs were legalized tomorrow, his country would see a “steady increase in all forms of drug use, with marijuana especially paralleling alcohol and tobacco. Crime would actually increase because 70% of drug-related crime is committed under the influence, and productivity would decrease. Ultimately, more money would have to be spent on the fallout of drug use.”
Mr. Voth adds that legalization has hardly been a success in the Netherlands. Recent polling data showed 73% of Dutch people think their drug laws are too tolerant, and 61% said all drugs should be made illegal. Not only had the number of addicts registered with the Dutch Consultation Bureau for Alcohol and Drug Problems risen 22% since 1988 to 54,171 in 1993, but the number of organized crime groups also rose from three in 1988 to 93 in 1993.
Reporter David Jones of Britain’s Daily Mail recently compared drug policies in the Netherlands with Sweden, where the government has worked for more than three decades to eliminate drug use. He wrote he had long been a decriminalization advocate, but “Ten days touring Holland and Sweden has changed my thinking completely.” Whereas only two of every 100 Swedes aged 15 to 25 have smoked cannabis in the past year, “in Holland it is about seven times more. Not coincidentally, the use of hard drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, Ecstasy and amphetamines, is appreciably lower in Sweden, too. So is the prevalence of drug-related crime, though this is rising in both countries.” As well, drugs are ruining whole communities and have spawned scores of major criminal operations in the Netherlands, the reporter observed.
The Alliance’s Mr. Toews states he is not prepared to share his personal feelings towards legalization, but does say he does not think the criminal-law approach to the drug war has worked very well, and that a debate is needed. “We have a very split caucus on that issue,” he adds. “Some people want a public-health approach rather than a law-enforcement approach to drugs, and I certainly don’t think that’s unique to the Canadian Alliance caucus.” Indeed, Conservative leader Joe Clark made headlines in May when he spoke in favour of decriminalizing marijuana.
Mr. Basham thinks demographics favour legalization, as older generations who support prohibition are gradually replaced with younger generations that take a more laissez-faire attitude to drugs. Asked if he sees a day when marijuana is generally accepted by society, Mr. Basham replies, “I do, but I don’t think it’s going to happen tomorrow.”