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The US is Addicted to War on Drugs
Published on Tuesday, May 20, 2003 by the Globe and Mail/Canada
The US is Addicted to War on Drugs
by Ethan Nadelmann

When it comes to drugs, the White House is singing loud and clear: Blame Canada. But many Americans are singing a different tune: Praise Canada.

As the Bush administration tries to bully you into submission on drug-policy matters, please keep the following in mind.

First, everything under way and under consideration in Canada is well-grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights, as well as taxpayers' interests. Every independent commission to examine marijuana policy, from Australia to the United States, has concluded that punitive prohibitions do more harm than good.

The medicinal value of marijuana is beyond dispute. As well, safer injection sites (such as Vancouver's) have proven effective in reducing drug overdoses, infections, risky injection practices and public nuisance. The White House may not like what you're doing, but you've got the evidence on your side.

Second, Canada's drug policy initiatives may be progressive by North American standards, but not by those of the advanced industrialized world. Switzerland is poised to leapfrog the Dutch cannabis policy and establish a legal regulatory system. Belgium just decriminalized marijuana. (Jamaica plans to as well, but like you, faces U.S. intimidation.) Dozens of safer injection sites now operate successfully in Western Europe and Australia. It's the United States, not Canada, that's out of step.

Third, there's no evidence that the drug policy reforms under way in Canada increase drug abuse. The best U.S. study of marijuana decriminalization (by a Canadian scholar, Eric Single) found no difference in use rates between the 11 states that decriminalized marijuana during the 1970s and others that did not. Ditto for needle exchange, heroin maintenance and safer injection sites.

Fourth, the principal impact of drug policies is not on levels of drug use but on death, disease, crime and the criminal justice system. By and large, the more punitive the approach, the greater the harms that result. Thus, the United States represents 5 per cent of the world's population and 25 per cent of the world's prison population. Almost half a million people are locked up for violating a drug law (more than all of Western Europe locks up for everything). This brutal incarceration rate is part and parcel of U.S. drug policy. Canadians, beware.

Fifth, don't underestimate the extremism of the Bush administration on drug policy. The medical marijuana issue is most revealing. Almost 80 per cent of Americans believe marijuana should be legally available as a medicine, when recommended by a doctor. Every state ballot initiative on the issue has won. Now even state legislatures are approving medical marijuana. The U.S. Institute of Medicine says marijuana has medicinal value. Yet the Bush administration disagrees -- and also says needle exchange doesn't reduce HIV/AIDS, notwithstanding the scientific studies and consensus that it does.

This isn't the first time the U.S. government has tried to bludgeon Canada into adopting backward U.S. policies. In the 1920s, it tried to compel Canada to help enforce U.S. alcohol prohibition. Canada resisted -- as you had the century before, when you rejected U.S. demands for the return of fugitive slaves. Think of the war on drugs as America's addiction. Canada's obligation, as friend and neighbor, is to speak to power.

Ethan Nadelmann is executive director of the U.S.-based Drug Policy Alliance and author of 'Cops Across Borders: The Internationalization of U.S. Criminal Law Enforcement'.

© 2003 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc


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