Thursday, February 11, 2021

How is drug decriminalization actually supposed to help?

The province of British Columbia is looking to become the first province in Canada to decriminalize drugs. Not just cannabis, which has been legalized (not just decriminalized) for over a year now in Canada, but ALL drugs, including heroin, cocaine and all the rest. The province needs the permission of the federal government to do so, and the two are in negotiations as we speak.

Just to be clear, decriminalization usually refers to the conplete removal of criminal penalties for drug use and possession, and is not to be confused with legalization, which completely removes all legal detriments to a previosuly illegal practice. Thus, under decriminalization, the practice remains technically illegal, but the punishment is drastically reduced or removed. Defelonization is another related term, meaning that drug possession penalties are reduced from the level of a felony to a misdemeanour, and is therefore a less drastic step than decriminalization.

The decriminalization lobby is strong, and highly committed to the probity and effectiveness of its position. But how exactly is decriminalization supposed to help?

Organizations like the Drug Policy Alliance lay it out for us. Decriminalization would usually seek to eliminate criminal penalties for drug use and possession (at least as regards "small quantities", however that might be defined), as well as the possession of drug equipment like syringes, and to eliminate penalties for small-scale low-level selling of drugs. It supporters claim that such a policy change would reduced jail populations and costs, and free up law enforcement resources and allow them to concentrate on more appropriate activities. 

But it would also, proponents argue, prioritize health and safety over punishmemt for drug users and, crucially in my opinion, reduce the stigma associated with drug use. This, it us argued, would encourage drug users to come foward and seek treatment and other supports, and to remove barriers to evidence-based harm-reduction practices like drug-checking and heroin-assisted treatment.

Now, to me, you don't bring in this kind of radical policy just to save law enforcement costs - we could save lots more by completely abandoning our police forces, although I know there is a contingent who would happily do just that! But if it is actually true that addiction and harm reduction programs can be substantially aided, then that might well be a good reason to go down that route. 

BC would not be the first jurisdiction to try it, so some hard evidence is already available. The usually-quoted example is Portugal, which decriminalized drug possession as long ago as 2001. In the Portuguese case, decriminalization did not result in an explosion in drug use, which remains below the European average and well below US levels. More importantly, though, there has been a 60% increase in drug users pursuing treatments, the number of new HIV cases has fallen dramatically, and drug overdose fatalities fell by 80% over 14 years. Oh, and court cases and incarcerations for drug offence also fell dramatically, as might be expected.

So, from this analysis at any rate, decriminalization does seem to actually work, and does not seem to have have any unfortunate side-effects.

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