Craig Jones, PhD, Executive Director, the John Howard Society of Canada
Context: The following was delivered on the morning of Feb 5. 2008 to a UN-sponsored Conference called "Beyond 2008" the theme of which was (roughly) "How can we, the UN, help you, the voluntary sector in Canada, more aggressively and effectively prosecute the global war on drugs?" - which assumptions provoked a good deal of ire and scorn, particularly from those NGOs who find themselves cleaning up the destruction of the war on drugs.
I held my peace for the first day, which featured a number of questions concerning process by which the NGO community and the UN might better collaborate on (eg) the eradication of cannabis in Canada, but delivered the following on the morning of the second day. I was the first speaker and when I finished I snapped my laptop shut and exited the conference centre . to rousing applause.
I did my homework last night and it re-affirmed in me my conviction that Canada ought to renounce the UN Drug Conventions.
The Conventions embody a particular model of human nature which presumes that human beings can be threatened or punished into good behaviour, that general deterrence works.
This model is a philosophical a priori: it cannot be refuted by evidence because it is grounded in late-Victorian ideology and carries with it all the classist, sexist and racist implications associated therewith.
The John Howard Society - on the basis of our long experience working to re-integrate former prisoners - finds this ideology unpersuasive, counter-productive, destructive and contradicted by evidence and experience.
In Canada, controls or legislation introduced to fulfill the obligations of the Conventions have been a disaster for people with mental health and/or addictions.
Adherence to their punitive requirements has brought about the unnecessary criminalization of thousands of non-violent young persons - many with mental illness -- and the resulting incarceration has negatively affected these persons, their families and communities.
Thousands of otherwise law-abiding persons must live out their lives with the stigma of a criminal record -- which stigma is far more damaging for the future course of their life than any experience with psycho-tropic drugs.
The Conventions have, however, been good for organized crime, nationally, regionally and globally and its symbiotic twin, law enforcement. When organized crime thrives, so do the bureaucratic interests of the law enforcement apparatus. To the extent that Canada's drug control strategies have historically inclined toward supply suppression, the Conventions have been good for this symbiotic alliance.
For NGOs, the impact of the conventions varies according to whether an NGO either draws resources and legitimacy from the Conventions - and the war on drugs generally - or works to clean up the social and human destruction caused by the drug war's utopian pursuit of the unachievable.
The negative impacts of the Conventions tend to fall heaviest upon people who are largely voiceless, illiterate, incarcerated, mentally ill or who - in many cases - simply had the temerity to chose bad parents.
The obligations of the Conventions are un-realizable in practice, a fact acknowledged even by those who publicly endorse them. Prohibition and criminal stigmatization makes the best the enemy of the good. The attempt to make the Conventions work amplifies the harm that is already associated with drug use and abuse by turning manageable public health issues into expensive and intractable criminal justice issues.
The "discretionary measures . provided for in the convention" are emasculated by the overarching principle of prohibition and criminalization. Where available discretionary measures are starved for resources or maintained on a short leash and under the unrelentingly hostile scrutiny of the INCB, the White House Drug Czar and associated apparatus.
Where most urgent - in Canada's prisons where HIV and Hep C are epidemic - evidence-based harm reduction measures, permitted by the Conventions, are thwarted by a deficit of political courage.
We need to re-regulate the production, distribution and consumption of currently illicit drugs. Starting with cannabis - which is 75% of the global war on drugs - we need to take the regulation of all illicit drugs under the direct control of the state rather than - as we currently do - delegating it to the contest between organized crime and police agencies of the state and international system.
Prohibition, as required by the Conventions, is a policy choice to criminalize large numbers of otherwise law-abiding people and to thereby provoke into flourishing a global criminal underworld.
It is the cure that is worse than the disease.
Prohibition is not a law of nature - like gravity -- it's a dysfunctional and destructive form of harm maximization that benefits only organized crime and police agencies.
Craig Jones, Ph.D.
The John Howard Society of Canada
809 Blackburn Mews, Kingston, Ontario, K7P 2N6
"A politician is a man who thinks of the next election; while the statesman thinks of the next generation." ~ James Freeman Clarke (1810-1888)