Canada's pot policies: what happened?

An interview with Dan Werb on what changes in U.S. drug law mean for Canada.
By: /
September 10, 2014
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With medical marijuana ‘Compassion Clubs’ across the country, a reputation for more lenient drug-related sentences and a province known, for better or worse, for its cannabis cultivation, Canada once seemed more progressive compared to the United States when it came to drug policy and public support for reform.

The recent legalization of marijuana in both Colorado and Washington states, and the debate happening in another half a dozen states, changed all that.

Now, with the 2015 federal election around the corner, Canada may be months away from taking its most serious look at marijuana regulation than it ever has before.

To discuss the challenges to drug reform in Canada, and globally, OpenCanada turned to Dan Werb, an epidemiologist, researcher at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and co-founder for the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy.

Werb explains why changes in U.S. law mean past justifications for holding Canada’s drug reform back no longer apply, and why marijuana legalization and access to medical marijuana are two separate issues. (To engage with Dr. Werb further on the issue, join our live panel discussion on drug reform Friday, Sept. 12, at 12 p.m.)

The International Centre for Science in Drug Policy aims to inform "illicit" drug policies with "the best available scientific evidence." To be clear, that means looking at results from prohibitive policies, whether positive or negative. What has been some of the most compelling evidence?

We are interested in looking at the evidence regarding all drug policy approaches. However, one of the side effects of the massive investment in enforcement-based drug policy worldwide has been the creation of a large scientific industry evaluating whether this approach is effective. So naturally when we seek the best evidence, it tends to be focused on the effectiveness of enforcement as a tool to control the supply and use of drugs.

I was personally struck by our research from 2013 looking at trends in the price and purity of major illegal drugs worldwide from the 1990s to 2010. In North America, we found that despite an investment in the hundreds of billions of dollars towards controlling drug supply, the price of most major illegal drugs has been dropping, while purity has increased. These suggest that overall, availability of illegal drugs is actually increasing despite this investment – and validates what many people already know anecdotally: that controlling the supply of illegal drugs is incredibly difficult.

Some of the bigger questions driving the discussion on drug reform are those for which there is not much evidence to provide answers at this point; such as whether addiction rates could go up with further decriminalization or legalization, or whether legalization could make an impact on the financial viability of organized crime. These studies are in their infancy. How does a scientific community respond to these kinds of concerns? What if some of these concerns are realized; is that kind of fear preventing experimentation or policy divergence here? 

The regulation of cannabis in the United States is a very good example of how the scientific community will deal with unknowns. In many ways, it’s an almost perfect natural experiment: you have a control group (the U.S. states that have not regulated cannabis) and not one but two experimental groups: Washington state and Colorado, both of which have independently set up systems to regulate cannabis. Now, the fact that there are two different systems in place will help enormously in helping us figure out what aspects of cannabis regulation work and what aspects don’t. It is certainly possible that either Washington or Colorado’s regulatory systems may have major problems. However, regulatory systems can be tweaked and modified to adapt to changing settings, so even if there are problems, those systems allow for greater flexibility. This isn’t, unfortunately, the case with the blanket prohibition of illegal drugs, which lacks that kind of flexibility.

Negative consequences of past decades of drug policy have brought forward some surprising supporters of reform, from the medical community to law enforcement and politicians. Who have you met in the field that has surprised you most who is speaking out? 

There are a whole range of people who support drug policy reform – in Canada and the United States, some of the most surprising are religious leaders who have seen the devastation of untreated addiction in their communities and who have concluded that a change is needed. Perhaps the most extreme, though, is the libertarian movement in the U.S., which sees prohibitions on drug use as a contravention of their rights under the American constitution.

Only a few years ago, Canada was seen as having progressive drug laws compared to the U.S. and some U.S. states' fairly harsh sentences for drug-related crime. Now, it seems to have flipped on its head, with several U.S. states either already having passed marijuana legalization and others seriously debating the issue. What do you make of such a change; has it been surprising? 

I don’t think anyone was particularly surprised by our current federal government’s support for failed ‘tough on crime’ approaches; it was one of their main campaign promises. I think what is noteworthy is that U.S. states have had years of mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes – and the broad conclusion is that these policies have done much more harm than good. It’s unfortunate that our current federal government hasn’t learned from the mistakes of our southern neighbours.

What kind of impact could legalization in the U.S. have on either drug trafficking in Canada or on policy or public support?

The impact on drug trafficking is an open question. At this stage, it’s possible that Canadian organized crime groups involved in trafficking cannabis to the U.S. might start shifting to other products. But no one really knows as of yet. In terms of policy and public support, the fact that the world’s exporter of the ‘War on Drugs’ is now the center of experimentation in cannabis regulation can only have a profound impact on the decisions that other countries make. Prime Minister Harper stated a few years back that taxing and regulating cannabis in Canada would cause all kinds of economic ruptures with the U.S. Well, that’s obviously not going to happen now that Washington – a state bordering Canada – has legalized cannabis. So I think the whole conversation is shifting towards a greater acceptability of different approaches to tackling drug problems.

In many countries, including Canada, the debate seems still centred on medical marijuana, with some support for harm reduction initiatives, but far from legalization or extensive decriminalization. Is access to medical marijuana a first-step for more progressive drug policies down the road, or do you see that as a separate issue than what drives legalization legislation? 

Personally, I see it as a separate issue, though there are many out there that have grouped it together with broader calls for drug policy reform. As someone working in public health, though, I want to keep public health concerns separate from more broad-based societal concerns. There are many, many problems associated with cannabis prohibition. One of those problems is that people who could benefit from medical marijuana as an analgesic treatment have difficulty in accessing it. But this is only one symptom of a greater problem that includes the incarceration and subsequent destruction of the lives of people who use and possess drugs because of dependence issues, or the targeting of certain minority groups by selective enforcement of drug crimes.

I am also a bit uncomfortable with the situation that occurred in California – where the medical marijuana system became so unregulated that it was, in some places, just a useful way for people who wanted to use cannabis recreationally to access it. I don’t think it’s helpful to have a medical system to regulate drugs, and then have that system perceived as providing recreational drugs to the general public.

What do you think are the biggest challenges for drug reform in Canada? 

Canadians are generally really well informed on drug policy issues. From the polling data I’ve seen, there is a strong appetite among the majority of Canadians for drug policy reform based on evidence. Unfortunately, being ‘tough on crime’ through maximum drug law enforcement is still a politically useful tool for the current government, even if it is wholly ineffective. This is just a long-winded way of saying that the major problem is political will. Canadians are ready.

Are there common misconceptions (in Canada, or in general) on drugs and drug reform worth highlighting? 

As above, I think Canadians are pretty well informed on issues around drugs. The one gap that I see is around why some people get addicted to drugs – which is often related to self-medication for mental illness or childhood trauma. Canadians of Aboriginal ancestry have a legacy of trauma, most recently from the abuses experienced at residential schools in Canada. These traumas are passed down through generations and they remain one of the main reasons that Aboriginal Canadians experience drug addiction at a higher prevalence than the general public. Unfortunately, this is one issue where Canadians are not well informed and a lot of misinformation and stigma remain.

Do you expect the issue to be politicized, especially during the 2015 federal campaign here? 

Absolutely. It always is.

Lastly, do you think we are experiencing a turning point in global drug reform? 

Yes. When the United States is experimenting with regulating cannabis after spending hundreds of billions in the 1990s and 2000s trying to get rid of it, we’ve reached a turning point.

Also in the series

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Lessons from Uruguay’s drug reform

Ten factors any country debating marijuana legalization should consider. By Eva Salinas.
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Changing the Drug Policy Narrative

Militarized strategies have failed to win the war on drugs. We need a new approach that puts people at the centre, says Robert Muggah.
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On the frontlines: drug reform in Texas

Could marijuana be legalized in one of the most conservative states in the U.S.? By Nathan Jones.
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A less-violent, illicit drug market? It is possible

If we were serious about harm reduction, we would manage drug markets, not crack down on them, argues Jean Daudelin.