TIME FOR AN IN-DEPTH EXAMINATION
Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
An address by Senator PIERRE-CLAUDE NOLIN to the Association nationale des policiers et policières
Quebec City, August 16, 2001
Translator’s note: Canadian Police Association (?) French title differs
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am honoured to have been invited to your annual meeting. One of the most important duties you all have is to ensure the protection of public peace and order by applying the legislation given to this country by its legislators, particularly its criminal legislation.
As you are no doubt aware, some of that legislation, the laws relating to illegal drugs and cannabis in particular, has been very much in the limelight lately. Recently, there seems to have been a contagious effect on Canadian legislators. The Senate struck a committee for the first time in May of 2000, and I have the honour to be its chair. As well, the House of Commons has seen fit to have its own committee and the Minister of Health has set himself the task of investigating of the medicinal use of drugs and the academic research into its effects. There has not been so much brainstorming since the tabling of the celebrated LeDain Commission report just under 30 years ago.
Why? What lies behind the politicians' interest? What exactly is the problem relating to illegal drugs?
What is the problem, when it is becoming obvious to everyone that, despite massive investments for the past thirty years or more, illegal drugs are more easily accessible, purer, and less costly then they were when the psychedelic era was in its early days? What is the problem, when epidemiological studies--not here, because Canada is not doing any, but in the United States and in Europe--show that use has not lessened despite the plethora of so-called prevention and educational programs? What is the problem with illegal drugs, when certain studies tend to indicate that problematical use patterns appear to be increasing among certain segments of the youth population, particularly disadvantaged and aboriginal youth? What is the problem with illegal drugs when we see how powerful organized crime has become, as its coffers are filled with the proceeds of drug trafficking, and the role drug trafficking plays in the geopolitics of world conflicts? What is the problem with drugs, when prohibition results in corruption and the infringement of fundamental rights? What is the problem of illegal drugs, when the number of charges for simple possession, particularly of cannabis, is increasing, while crime targeting property and individuals has been on the decrease for the past eight years now in Canada? What is the problem when all manner of opinions are being expressed, whereas hard data is sorely lacking?
The problem, or at least one aspect of the problem, is the inability of the legislators, the politicians of this country, to look squarely at the illegal drug question and to admit that, no matter how one looks at it, prohibitionist policies are an out-and-out failure, and what is more a costly one.
An out-and-out failure: I have already referred to how readily available drugs are and how they are becoming cheaper, to corruption, to the continuing trend toward use. Former police officers and chiefs of police, former Drug Enforcement Agency people in the United States, have all reached the point of speaking out against the hypocrisy of a prohibitionist system that serves as a screen for international diplomacy and a scare tactic that no longer makes any sense.
A costly failure on a number of levels:
- on the economic level: hundreds of millions have been spent in an attempt to enforce legislation that has remained unenforceable;
- on the socio-judicial level: legislation that has not been respected, tens of thousands of people with criminal records for simple possession of marijuana;
- on the socio-health level: policies have led to needlessly high levels of HIV-AIDS transmission, both on the streets of Vancouver and Montreal and in our jails.
We already had the example of the prohibition of alcohol between 1924 and 1933 in the United States. This similar remedy had similar side effects…what is more, there is a striking similarity between both the "disease" and the "patient".
Legislators are unable, or unwilling, to deal with the problem, to devote the necessary resources to it in order to determine the issues involved and to establish some basic principles. But what I am saying here about the legislators applies equally to many other groups in society. I hardly need say that this includes police forces. We need only think of such people as Tom Flanagan, retired Ottawa Police Chief, or Ted Symmons, retired Commissioner of the RCMP, who only after their retirement dared make the statement that the "war against drugs" was a failure, something they would never have said publicly during their career. How many specialized investigators does it take, telling us the same thing in private, while continuing to wage that war, and particularly to defend it publicly?
Cynics will say that politicians lack the courage and vision to attack the issue head on, and to propose a strong and clear alternative while public opinion is, at best, divided, and at times somewhat cool to any liberalization of present policies. Those same cynics will also say that law enforcement officers and police forces benefit from it, the former through overtime pay and the latter through the additional human and financial resources allocated, as well as extended powers.
Cynicism is not enough, and it quickly runs into a dead end. Even if we admit that the present policies are a patent failure, we must also admit that we have no answers, or no satisfactory ones, to numerous questions. What are the alternatives? What would the effects of alternative approaches be? What would the effects of legalizing cannabis be? What about its decriminalization? Is it a legitimate fear that levels of consumption would increase significantly? Is the experience in the Netherlands sufficient to convince us that there would be no serious consequences, particularly among youth? And most of all, what principles should be used to determine these alternatives?
We are living in a society and at a time when the principle of maximum individual freedom is favoured. Many feel that there is far too much government interference in many areas of human activity. As far as drug use is concerned, the American psychiatrist and sociologist Thomas Szasz is perhaps the one who has developed this vision of individual freedom the furthest. Much reference has also been made in this connection to the famous maxim of British philosopher John Locke: that everyone must have the right to decide by himself and for himself what he will do with his own body, provided the decision does not have any consequences for others. It is not certain, however, that this has always been properly interpreted.
As far as drugs are concerned, then, the legislator is confronted with the question of how to determine alternatives to the present policy. A libertarian approach like Szasz' may be justified from the philosophical point of view, but remains hard to defend politically in light of present public opinion and perhaps also the state of current knowledge. What is more, this minimalist approach to social morality brings with it the risk of leaning more toward egotism than individualism. Reflecting on the disenchantment of the modern world, internationally renowned Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor says that the ideal of authenticity introduces moral values, which transcend the individual and the expression of each individual's desires. The freedom to use drugs without any need to be concerned about society's laws because this act does no harm to anyone thus runs the risk of being nothing more than a kind of negative freedom -- a freedom from something -- rather than a positive freedom, a freedom to expand one's being.
Inversely, what is there to justify maintaining a prohibitionist approach? Let us start by setting aside the international treaties, first of all because the same questions apply and are raised against this repressive structure, and secondly because bringing these treaties into the equation does not respond to the underlying questions. Thirdly, because any sovereign state retains its power to reject a treaty. Getting back to the question raised, according to most indicators such a policy appears not to be justified on the basis of individual well-being; not only can those wishing to use drugs do so, but these policies bring about perverse effects, charges for minor offences, products of dubious quality, diseases that are sometimes fatal. Is this justified for the good of society as a whole? What, then, are the social objectives of such an approach? Collective health? Since when does a society have the right to punish individuals because they are not healthy or are not doing the right thing to be healthy? Must those who consume too many sweet or fatty foods be punished? What about those who become addicted to tobacco or alcohol, with consequences that are, moreover, more serious and costly than most illegal drugs? An ethic for proper living? Once again, the question remains as to why those who do not subscribe to this ethic would be punished. In fact, everything leads one to believe that the present prohibitionist policy is part of the problem and the harm it causes outweighs its advantages.
Between these two extremes we know there is a broad range of alternatives, the ones most frequently referred to being decriminalization and controlled legalization. Both of these, however, raise the same questions, and both in particular open up the possibility for total decriminalization of illegal drugs, which some people refuse to even contemplate.
We can see that what the drugs issue requires first of all is an examination of questions of principle. This is, moreover, the reason why one of the key elements to the work of the Senate special committee in coming months will consist in carrying out a reflection on what we have agreed to call the guiding principles. These are the principles, which will guide our choices of public policy, one we will then pass to the legislators in the form of recommendations in our final report.
The other questions with which we are confronted in any reflection on illegal drugs are more empirical in nature. Some of them are almost theoretical or academic, such as the current debate on the medical value of cannabis. Others are more instrumental, such as an examination of use patterns, but that is not to say that they are necessarily simpler, or that the conclusions are always unanimously accepted, as shown by the example of the medical use of cannabis. The criteria determining whether a natural plant has therapeutic properties are not perhaps the same as those used by the medical profession to establish the validity of manufactured medications. Here again, questions of a philosophical order arise, particularly those on the role and limitations of science, but I will spare you from these.
This is the other key task the Committee has set for itself: to bring together the most current factual information in order to help ourselves find answers to a whole set of basic questions. To that end, we are carrying out two parallel and complementary activities. One of these, no doubt the more visible, is that we will be hearing expert witnesses from Canada and elsewhere. We will be resuming our hearings in the fall, and they will run until March 2002. The other activity is the production of research reports on a certain number of specific themes. Our means are limited, and do not allow us to carry out any new research, but we are planning to make creative use of what we do have at our disposal. In both cases, we are seeking to respond to a set of questions that will provide us with an overall view of the issue. These questions address the various sources of information on illegal drugs: what do we know about their medical and pharmacological effects, their psychological effects, their sociological and anthropological dimensions, and what do we know about the legal aspects, both domestic and international.
As well, we will have to contact Canadians and listen to what they have to say. If the legislator is to propose a vision, and if the act of governing requires the making of choices, this cannot be done without listening to civil society. Choices cannot be made unless a choice is also made to inform and educate society. There are so many myths about drug use, because it is hard to break down the information and analyze it without prejudice, so we have a duty to make the information we gather accessible. Not everyone will necessarily reach the same conclusions from that information, but at least everyone will know what we used as the basis for our conclusions and recommendations. This will also prevent all manner of contradictory statements from being made, as is often the case now as far as drugs are concerned.
I will close by stating that, should the Special Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs uses as its starting point that the current prohibition-based public policies are a failure, this is not a sign of lack of objectivity or rigour. On the contrary, this very statement is what imposed upon us the objective we set ourselves: to carry out an in-depth examination of the issue. The individual and societal damage done by drugs and by public policies relating to drugs are sufficiently significant to make us realize that the time has come for such an examination; this alone must direct the public debate.