A drug policy expert who’s spent years on the front lines says the war on drugs has failed and it’s time to legalize illicit drugs.
“Drugs that are currently illegal, we should make them legal,” Donald MacPherson says. “Then we can focus on problematic substance use and issues like dependency and addiction.”
“The so-called war on drugs is this sort of masterful distraction that we will get it right someday in the future if we just try a little harder,” he says.
“That’s not going to happen.”
MacPherson’s been at this fight for decades. As North America’s first drug policy coordinator for a municipality, he authored the City of Vancouver’s Four Pillars drug strategy. Approved in 2001, it was considered radical and controversial for calling on governments to reduce the harm of illegal drug use.
His argument is one based on public health, but also economics.
“If we were to just legalize these substances and put our resources to helping people who develop problems with them, we’d waste less money and have much better outcomes.”
To opponents who say governments or agencies shouldn’t be providing illegal substances, MacPherson turns the argument inside out. His solution? Rewrite the laws.
“Laws change, he says. “Bad laws get changed. We do that all the time. Those drugs are illegal but we made them illegal. We can change it up.”
Worse than the AIDS crisis
MacPherson says the current opioid crisis is different because of the extremely toxic drug supply, and that enforcement efforts are to blame.
“Our drug policy has created this phenomenon called fentanyl. Fentanyl is a very powerful opioid. It’s in the drug supply because it’s highly concentrated and easy to get across borders and extremely lucrative to sell.
“It’s really unstoppable in terms of our traditional enforcement strategy.”
Speaking to Global News from the Alberta Community Crime Prevention Association Conference, the co-chair of Alberta’s Minister’s Opioid Emergency Response Commission says easier access to treatment should be the priority. Elaine Hyshka says scientific research shows drug substitution, like methadone or suboxone, is the most effective treatment for opioid use.
“Those medications reduce your risk of death and are the best bet for long-term abstinence,” she says.
MacPherson says it should happen as quickly as possible.
“Nowhere in Canada is there a good treatment system, so you have the opportunity to build one in the face of this catastrophe,” he says.
The failure of prohibition
“But we also need to come to grips with the fact that drug prohibition itself is at the end of its road,” MacPherson says. “It’s failed. So we have to start looking at allowing people to have access to a safer drug supply.
“We’d do it with food if the food was toxic, we’d do it with water if the water was toxic. The drug supply is toxic and it’s killing people,” he adds.
“People who are addicted, and we know tonight will be accessing the illegal market, have a great chance of dying.”
There were 74 fentanyl-related deaths in Alberta during the first three months of 2018. That’s about a 25 per cent increase compared to the same period last year.