David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Review - The War on Drugs: A Failed Experiment

Brandon Sun, December 8, 2014 - David McConkey

If last year’s Brandon-Souris byelection is any indication, legalizing marijuana will be a big issue in the next federal election. So, it is great to see the timely new Canadian book, The War on Drugs: A Failed Experiment. The author is Paula Mallea, a lawyer who used to live in Brandon.
 
Mallea, who now lives in Ontario, practised law here in the 1980s and 90s. (Her husband John was the president of Brandon University.) Just as the marijuana debate is heating up in Canada, Mallea’s book should be the go-to primer on the subject. The War on Drugs is available at the Brandon Public Library, which is where I discovered it in their display of new books.
 
Mallea writes from experience, having “defended legions of drug offenders in criminal court.” She reports, however, that “toiling in the trenches did not lend itself to developing a reasoned and nuanced approach” to the issue. When she began working on her book, she was in favour of keeping marijuana illegal. But her research drew her to an “unexpected conclusion.”
 
War on Drugs There are three main approaches we can take to drugs. The first is prohibition. This is what we had for alcohol in the 1920s and what we have now for marijuana, cocaine and heroin. The second is decriminalization. This is where a drug like marijuana stays illegal, but there is a reduced penalty for possessing a small amount. The third approach is legalization and regulation. This is how we deal with alcohol and tobacco today.
 
Mallea does a good job of presenting the facts and providing the overall context. I’ll bet that any reader would learn something new. One thing I didn't know before? Bayer started selling heroin in the late 1800s. The company marketed their product as “heroin,” because soldiers – “heroes” – who took the drug were braver on the battlefield.
 
What about the big picture? “The War on Drugs,” Mallea writes, “was never about the drugs.” The drug war has always been driven by “political expediency, prejudice, and ignorance.” She points out that legal alcohol and tobacco “cost society much more in dollars and suffering than all of the illegal drugs combined.”
 
“The War on Drugs has failed in all of its objectives,” she writes. “It has not reduced the drug trade, eliminated production, or decreased the number of users.” Also, illegal drugs have been a huge gift to organized crime, with plenty of accompanying violence and corruption.
 
As well, the drug war is unfairly waged. The aim was never to go after illegal drug use among the wealthy or the middle class. Instead, the War on Drugs targets racial minorities, the poor, and the marginalized. The resulting prison time disrupts the life of families and neighbourhoods. When released, individuals – now ex-cons – have trouble getting a job and fitting into society.
 
Mallea is very critical of our Harper government, which has ramped up the War on Drugs. Penalties and enforcement have both been increased. (The majority of drug crime in Canada is for the simple possession of marijuana.) In the last decade, largely because of the drug war, our prison population has increased by 16%. Our aboriginal prison population has increased by 45%.
 
But, Mallea writes, “Canada is in a time warp.” Elsewhere in the world, the War on Drugs is in retreat. More drug warriors (politicians, prosecutors, police) admit that the war has failed. More places – such as Portugal, Uruguay, and Colorado and Washington in the U.S. – are decriminalizing or legalizing. Young people are ready for alternatives; and they show up to vote when change is on the ballot.
 
What does Mallea reach as a surprising “unexpected conclusion”? We should legalize not just marijuana, but all drugs.
 
What? Legalize heroin and cocaine? Yes. Legalize and regulate them: not in spite of their being dangerous, but because they are dangerous. We should take the distribution of these drugs out of the hands of gangsters and put it into the hands of society. Legalizing and regulating drugs would not create a “free-for-all” – we have that right now. Experience from other countries shows that decriminalizing or legalizing drugs does not increase their use.
 
The drug war – especially legalizing marijuana – is a hot topic. For citizens wondering about this issue, an informative and thought-provoking read is Paula Mallea’s The War on Drugs.

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See also:  

The War on Drugs on Amazon.com         (on Amazon.ca)

Reflections on the War on Drugs

The Marijuana Byelection?

Other Reviews

 



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David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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