Canada and the US Are Drifting Apart on the War on Drugs

The neighbouring countries’ policies on everything from opioids to cannabis are increasingly in opposition.

by Allison Tierney
Jun 20 2017, 4:27pm

Art by Noel ransome

With Donald Trump's administration signaling a return to the hardline war on drugs policy of his Republican predecessors, the US is flirting once again with an already-failed, flawed mission. It's difficult to resist imagining what the fallout from that revival could be, especially in the US, but also for those in Canada. Attitudes north of the border toward drug policy are inching away from America's as Canada grapples with its opioid crisis, which is killing thousands per year in the country, and as cannabis is set to be legal and regulated in the country by July 2018.

Bill Bogart, author of Off the Street: Legalizing Drugs, said that Trump and Sessions have more than enough to handle before a crackdown on drugs becomes a priority (see: Russian election-meddling problems, healthcare, taxation). "We don't need to be alarmists," Bogart said, "There's too many other things to be alarmed about." But if they do go hard on the war on drugs—and not just in rhetoric, which is the more likely scenario—it could mean tensions not just between Canada and the US, but also internationally.

"We all know Canada is not going to be compliant under many international treaties controlling drugs, because those are focused on the prohibition model," Bogart told VICE. "If the international community is willing, we can find a solution to all of this. But if Donald Trump becomes a drug warrior, he can do all sorts of things to really embarrass and complicate Canada internationally."

Another major issue is those at the border. As it stands, Canadians who admit to having done cannabis before can be banned from the US—but marijuana is going to be legal next year north of the US border.

"It would certainly become an enormous issue for those who have used marijuana illegally in the past, but also for those who would be using marijuana legally," Bogart said.

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears to stand opposite Canada's progressive stance on cannabis. He once literally said "Good people don't smoke marijuana." And in March, he described cannabis as "only slightly less awful" than heroin. Those were some shocking words to hear in the middle of the opioid crisis, given that catch-all attitude exhibited toward drugs is part of what got us to this point in the first place. (In the US, drug overdoses are now killing more people annually than car accidents.) Sessions also supports mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences and issued a memo in May ordering federal prosecutors to "charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offenses" for drug law violations.

All of the aforementioned is extremely troubling and points to a revival of a dangerous approach to drugs in America. But, there's more: Trump invited Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte—who is leading a genocide in his country on drug users and dealers—to the White House. "[You're] doing a great job," President Trump reportedly told the man who has ordered the violent deaths of thousands of his own people.

Canada, on the other hand, is warming up to progressive drug policy—though at a pace those on the frontlines say is too slow for the rate at which people are dying from opioids. There's steps toward legal heroin, an increased number of supervised injection sites,and the minister of health made a speech at the International Harm Reduction Conference this year.

"In Canada, the Liberal government has really come to see drug issues as public health issues, not as criminal ones. They're definitely moving toward that with marijuana, and Jane Philpott is definitely doing whatever she can in terms of the opioid crisis," Bogart said.

South of the border, though, the possibility of a reignited drug war during the opioid crisis is at once terrifying and morally wrong. Devastatingly, communities affected most by the opioid crisis, such as those in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, were also those in which Trump prevailed during the 2016 election.

"[Trump] could wreak havoc. If you go back to a criminalization model, think about all the people dependent on opioids… Never mind the possibility of safe injection sites, never mind legal heroin being available: They would end up in jail and probably wouldn't survive."

At the same time, Western Europe is moving away from embracing criminalization of drug use. Take, for instance, the success of the Portugal model. Bogart points to US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement: "The immediate reaction is too bad, we wish you hadn't done this, but we recognize the validity of this accord, and we (the international community, a number of the influential members) are going to proceed with it." Bogart said the same could be possible for those nations supporting progressive drug policy. However, he said, a US stance opposing this kind of progressive thinking could "dampen" the movement on international front of embracing a public health perspective on non-medical drug use.

Ultimately, this could mean a distancing of the US not just from the international community at large, but also the US-Canadian relationship. The two countries, which share the longest international border in the world, are increasingly drifting apart.

"Canada is separating itself from United States in a number of policy fronts. How we handle the non-medical use of drugs is certainly an important one, but there are many others," Bogart said. "The two countries and the two societies are growing apart."

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