By Matt Jelly, In The Neighbourhood
Setting aside the ongoing Rob Ford scandal for a moment, it’s safe to say that most people at some point or another in their lives will experience an addiction of some sort, major or minor, legal or illegal. Depending on the addiction, we either properly treat the addiction as a health condition, or we deter the activity through criminal prosecution. Our approach is often the latter when it comes to drug addiction.
With the “War On Drugs” being roundly declared a social policy failure, I believe Portugal’s experience over the past 13 years is one particularly informative case study of the benefits of decriminalizing substance abuse, replacing criminal prosecution with medical treatment and proper support.
Portugal enacted a new drug policy in July 2001- decriminalizing the use of recreational drugs, replacing criminal punishment with therapy, substance abuse treatment, harm reduction and community service. When this set of laws passed, the manufacturing, dealing and trafficking of drugs remained illegal in a criminal context- but the personal use of drugs was effectively decriminalized, treating personal drug abuse as a public health issue rather than a criminal one.
Having been implemented close to 13 years ago, the long-term impacts are measurable, and the Portugal example can serve as a good framework for how decriminalization can work in practice. According to many accounts, this policy has been successful in encouraging more people to seek drug treatment, making a drastic reduction in overall addiction rates, reduced HIV and drug-related diagnoses among drug users, reduced drug-related deaths, and reduced drug abuse rates specifically among teens. Portugal’s drug usage rates are now among the lowest in the European Union.
Six months ago, when the Rob Ford scandal first arose, I said then what I’d say now- drug abuse is not my singular problem with Rob Ford. My problem (aside from his various racist, transphobic and homophobic remarks) is with his repeated attempts to cut many social services in Toronto that provide support and treatment for those seeking to improve their health and beat their addictions, after running on a campaign promise not to cut any services, yet to magically cut taxes.
In a 2005 interview regarding Drug policy with the National Post, then-Councillor Rob Ford said “You have to get these people into rehabilitation and if they don’t want to go, well, then you just enforce the law. If it’s illegal, you arrest them. That’s the bottom line and if they have to dry out in jail — great.” – an ironic quote considering his current predicament. Ford went further to say, in response to harm-reduction measures “It’s euthanasia. You’re just giving them a place to kill themselves. That’s what is going to happen. You might as well just have a crematorium beside the crack house.”
In reality, as more and more communities implement harm-reduction strategies and monitor the results, it becomes increasingly clear that these policies can actually be quite effective from a public health standpoint- most notably in BC, where harm reduction strategies over a 15-year period resulted in an overall reduction in drug use, a reduction in injection drug use, and cases of HIV and Hepatitis C among users of injection drugs- a very positive result in terms of the health of the entire community. Despite this success, the Federal Conservatives continue to resist the implementation of these programs nation-wide.
Locally, in 2011, half of our Hamilton city councillors (Councillors Duvall, Jackson, Clark, Pearson, Johnson, Powers, Pasuta and Partridge) voted against the Public Health Department’s recommendation to expand and improve harm reduction services currently offered in the city- the recommendations were defeated in an 8-8 tie vote.
In a broader sense, I hope the conservatives who helped Ford rise to power will think differently about drug policy, rather than continue to support a broken system of mandatory minimum sentencing and unnecessary incarceration, while also refusing to support public health measures which have been shown to work.
After we get all the obvious jokes about the Rob Ford scandal out of our system, it would be nice to see the conversation lead to something more constructive.