Legalizing Illicit Drugs: War on Addiction, Not Drugs

Updated: Oct 17, 2020


Photo: Unsplash


Canada’s history with drugs has been based on bad science and an incomplete understanding of the externalities of drug use and criminalization. Only recent drug legislation has been informed by scientific evidence and a more fully educated public discussion. For Our Future argues for a transformation in drug legislation, shifting from a criminalized drug system to a fully legalized, albeit tiered system.

A new system must be based on science and nuanced public policy. The following recommendations do not provide all the answers — more science is needed — but it does provide a blueprint for how new drug legislation could function.

Lessons Learned

Reviewing a variety of drug legislation offers much to be learned from. The effects of criminalization include deterrence, greater harm to users, a black market, and enforcement spending. The effects of legalization include better health outcomes, a reduced black market, and government revenues.

There has been a war on drugs for decades and there is little to show for it. Drug use is higher now than ever before, billions of dollars have been spent, and tens of thousands of people are arrested for possession. This last outcome disproportionally affects minorities. Without oversight and regulation on the production of drugs, users are unsure of the purity and consistency of the drugs they use. This has been a contributing factor to growing numbers of opioid and meth overdoses. There has also been an explosion of violence and organized crime that derives its profits from illicit drugs. Increasing law enforcement spending does not reduce consumption as suppliers can always find demand by shifting markets; this is called the balloon effect.

Legalization and other programs that relax rules on drug use have shown to be much more productive. Several programs that allow opioid users to safely take their drugs save lives by preventing overdoses. Portugal’s decimalization has shown that there is no significant increase in drug use; rather there were declines in use by injection drug users and youth. Alcohol, while legalized decades ago, provides insight into eliminating the black market. It will never fully disappear, but with time and by frequently adjusting rules, it can be largely diminished. Lastly, the government can shift spending from law enforcement to treatment, increase revenues through taxes on these new drugs, and grow the economy with the entrance of new firms.

Designing a System that Works

A system that will adapt to the complexities of all illicit drugs needs to be multileveled and differentiate between types of drugs. By separating currently illicit drug as well as tobacco (including nicotine) and alcohol into four broad categories of controlled substances, they can be appropriately administered and/or sold to consumers. Within these categories, each drug will have its own regulations but must also fit into the broad restraints of its category. For all legalized drugs no advertising would be allowed, and all packaging would need to be covered by warnings about the use of that drug.

It is crucial the marketing is banned; regulation can fail when harmful drugs are marketed as helpful, an example being the current opioid crisis. Smart, nuanced regulation can stymie this effect.

Controlled Substances I. This category is meant for the most destructive and dangerous drugs. These drugs will be sold in their own facilities that would operate more closely to a clinic than a company. The facility would be operated by medical professionals who would perform medical assessments on new consumers before they are allowed into the program and supervise the consumers while they take the drug.

These pure drugs and their required equipment (needles, pipes, etc.) would be provided to the consumers after they provide their health card and pay for the drug. Exemptions would be made for those without identification, specifically the homeless. This model ensures that drugs that are both highly addictive and frequently lead to overdoses can be administered in a way that minimizes the risk of overdose and can track consumer consumption. Avenues for treatment and recovery would be frequently suggested as well.

CSI Drugs include: fatal opioids, methamphetamine, and crack-cocaine, etc.

Controlled Substances II. CSII drugs would be held by pharmacies and administered in small and controlled quantities. While no medical assessment would be required, the quantity of each drug can be tracked and controlled by the pharmacy. Pharmacists would be required to tell the consumer about addiction services, educate them on how to safely use the drug, and warn them of its risks before supplying them with the drug.

CSII drugs include: cocaine and LSD, etc.

Controlled Substances III. Under this category, drugs would be more easily accessible. Sold at government-controlled facilities, these drugs would only have a few restrictions on their use. There would be large but finite limits in the quantity per purchase, approximately one month. These stores would require one’s health card to purchase them so that quantities purchased can be tracked. Before the purchase of a new type of drug, individuals would need to be educated on how to use the drug by the resident medical expert.

CSIII drugs include: MDMA and psilocybin, etc.

Controlled Substances IV. As the least severe category, these drugs would be permitted in a similar manner as they already have been. There would be no limits on the amount that one can buy and purchases would not be tracked. These could be sold by either government-controlled or private companies. If it were sold privately, those companies must provide the drugs from behind the counter. Identification would always be required and as stated above, no branding would be allowed, and packaging must be covered by warning labels.

CSIV drugs include: alcohol, tobacco, and cannabis, etc.

Other drugs that could potentially fit into either CSIII or CSIV would be diluted opioids and stimulants such as poppy tea and coco leaves. These forms of drugs would need particularly extensive research so that their effects are fully known before being legalized.

Global Supply Chains

The above policy changes would, over time, greatly reduce the effect of the black market. As producers become established in Canada their lower prices and greater distribution would drive out the black market. Consumer preference for safe, consistent drugs would also contribute to this. Yet there is undoubtedly going to be some black-market space left, which would vary by drug.

To more fully eliminate the black market, a more global effort would be needed.

In the context of Canada, that global effort would need to be at least regional. Canada is a sub-optimal environment for cannabis, coca leaves, and opioids to be grown. If there can be a concerted effort to legalize drugs in both the consuming countries (largely western) and producing countries like South and Central America, the entire supply chain could shore up gaps in the legal market, eroding the place for cartels and large illicit producers.

While this is a larger fight, the results would be even more powerful as violent and powerful non-state actors such as cartels would lose the incentive to use violence to protect their drugs as the state could instead be the protector. Kingpins should still be prosecuted for their crimes, but economic incentives should be there for cartels to break apart into smaller competitive firms.

How is This to be Accomplished?

Even with sound science and nuanced public policy, for this legislation to be adopted, there needs to be considerable public support for it. For this to happen, the government should allow greater research on the use of these drugs as current efforts are highly curtailed. Moreover, there should be greater public education of the health and societal impact of current drug laws. The larger the public discussion, the more likely the issues with current laws will be brought to light.