Decriminalization at its Worst

Demand Reduction and Mandatory Treatment: Decriminalization at Its Worst

David Malmo-Levine takes a look at the future of the drug war.

History teaches us that there have been but few infringements of personal liberty by the state which have not been justified, . . . in the name of righteousness and the public good, and few which have not been directed, as they are now, at politically helpless minorities. -Stone, Harlan F., in Minersvillle School Dist. V. Gobitis, 310, U.S. 586, 604 (1940)

Not merely to extract your confession, not to punish you. Shall I tell you why we have brought you here? To cure you! -O’Brien, from George Orwell’s 1984

The drug court

“All rise, the Circuit Court for the State of Oregon, Multnomah county, is now in session,” a voice booms out. More than 50 people, some of them hard-core, longtime junkies, struggle to their feet. “Be seated,” Judge Harl Haas responds as he takes his seat in a swirl of black robes. “Let’s get down to business,” Haas says, reaching for the first of a huge pile of files. Half a dozen young men are brought into court in chains. This is drug court. “How you doin’, judge,” a young black man says as he comes up to the microphone in the courtroom after his name is called. “It doesn’t look like you’re doing so good, Walter,” the judge says, looking over Walter Wright’s treatment report. “What are we going to do with you?” Wright argues that there must have been some mistake in his last two drug tests – the court uses routine urinanlysis. He denies doing methamphetamine (speed). He promises to make his next counselling appointments and get acupuncture treatments. The prosecutor argues he must be ordered into detox. Haas, who admits he is known as Last Chance Haas, decides to give Walter two weeks more to clean up on his own. “If you come back in two weeks and you’ve got two more dirty UAs, I’m going to put you in detox, Walter. It’s up to you.” (1)

Not sick enough

Right now, the Compassion Club is currently under negotiations with Health Canada to allow those who have a prescription for cannabis to get a “Section 56 exemption” to avoid persecution. Don’t get me wrong – I love the Compassion Club. I did a lot to help get it off the ground. I love the people who work there. I want the sick people to be protected. All that aside, a fat lot of good their negotiations are going to do me. You see, I’m sick too. I don’t like to talk about it . . . it’s kind of embarrassing, but for this part of the story needs a bit of explaination. In 1992, I went to Mexico, and came back with this “irritable bowel”. Gas, pain, bloating, nausea, diarrhea, occasional fainting spells, insomnia, fatigue – the works. I’ve tried everything – antibiotics, allergies, cadida-free diet, lab analysis, barium milkshakes and x-rays, oxygen therapies, massage, fasting, grapefruit seed extract and even friggin’ flower essences and meditation! Nothing works. So I smoke pot to keep me hungry, happy, relaxed and focused on life’s “silver lining”. I even got a doctor’s note saying:

“He has informed me that his use of marijuana has alleviated these symptoms considerably. I see no evidence to the contrary and based upon his visit pattern and history am inclined to believe this is so.”

This is even better than a prescription – it allows doctors who don’t know enough about cannabis to prescribe it but who respect the patient’s wishes and who wishes participate in their own little “clinical trials”. This would be especially good for places in Canada and the US with doctors who are afraid of government lawyers and getting fired – which is just about everywhere. So I bounced it off John Conroy – the Compassion Club lawyer – if he could negotiate on behalf of patients like myself. I love John too, by the way. Almost everything I know about law I stole from John. But he’s a bit of a “one-step-at-a-time” kind of guy. Me? I’m impatient. I want dignity now. Basically, if you’re not sick enough, you’re screwed until the next “step” – which could be in 30 years or so at the rate we’re going. All you folks who use pot for stress and depression (It’s rare to find a doctor who will prescribe pot for these conditions) are now out of the “sick enough” category. If you just smoke for fun or to be social, or can’t find a brave doctor, here’s what the drug war has in store for the rest of us

The key to the drug war

Back in 1990, a meeting was held in the United Nations to do something about the terrible illegal drugs and what they were doing to our children. Uncle Sam, true to form, shook his finger vigorously at the “drug producing nations” for not doing enough to kill all their coca, poppy and pot farmers. The other nations responded that if it wasn’t for America’s unparalleled demand for these products, their farmers would be out of business. Canada sided with the “drug producing nations”;

No amount of enforcement will solve the Canadian drug problem as long as Canadians remain willing to give $10 billion a year to traffickers, Health Minister Perrin Beatty said yesterday. . . . The minister urged a balanced attack, but said demand is the key. “Our first emphasis is clearly on demand,” he said, noting that 70 per cent of his government’s anti-drug spending goes to education and treatment, with the rest to enforcement. (2)

Decrim. – Reform Party Style

Now that Canada had the “key” to the drug war, they were ready to unlock the door of perception and walk through to a drug-free nation. There was just one problem. How to reduce demand? For seven years, the politicians scratched their heads. Enter Keith Martin:

A reform MP from Vancouver Island wants marijuana decriminalized. But Keith Martin, a medical doctor from Esquimalt, says that doesn’t mean pot should be legalized. He says penalties should be increased for marijuana possession, with much higher fines for used to pay for mandatory treatment programs for pot smokers. But no one would end up with a criminal record. . . .He suggests fines, which now usually range from $50 to $200, should be increased to between $500 and $1,000. The income would be enough to fund treatment programs that would have to be established. Martin admits the idea of decriminalization doesn’t fit Reform’s hard-line-on-crime image. But he insists it’s “a much more intelligent fashion” of dealing with the problem. (3)

Thanks, Keith, but I think I’d rather have the criminal record. As it turns out, this wasn’t a very original idea. The totalitarian military dictatorship of Singapore had been doing it for years.

A short, sharp shock

Singapore is seen as a model country that other countries are to “follow the example of”, according to the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board’s 1995 report. There, you can get a mandatory death sentence for being found in possession of over 500 grams of cannabis. 15 to 499 grams gives you the cane, and “treatment”. Addicts get “treatment”. The treatment?

In Singapore, addicts, though arrested, are not given criminal status. They are put into rehabilitation centers and segregated by their pattern of drug use. All who are fit and under the age of 55 are put through “cold turkey” detoxification in spare rooms for a week. . . . Nor are addicts regarded as patients; they are seen as people with behavioral problems. A week of recuperation from detoxification follows, plus orientation to a regimen of paramilitary discipline. Once they are judged ready and able to quit drug use, the first-time addicts are put into two weeks of intensive physical training in the tropical sun and equally intensive personal, group and family counseling. The entire experience is designed as a “short, sharp shock,” to wean them from drugs and to make them afraid to try again. Between 30 and 50 percent of first-time addicts are sent home, and for two years they must report to the police for urine tests on a regular schedule, undergo counseling and be subjected to surprise urine tests. The others are at this point put in a two- or three-month course at another, harsher center. They then enter a four-month day-release program, during which they are permitted outside employment. The two years of urine tests and counseling come after that for this group. . . .About 70 percent of the Central Narcotics Bureau’s annual budget of $11 million is spent on treatment and rehabilitation. (4)

70 percent – just like Canada! Singapore’s tough stance on drugs hasn’t made the country “drug free” yet. In fact, their “drug problem” just keeps getting bigger every year. According to Amnesty International, the number of executions since the beginning of 1994 have “risen dramatically”;

Amnesty International recorded 5 executions for drug offences in 1989, 3 in 1990, 3 in 1991, 3 in 1992, 7 in 1993 and 29 in 1994. In the first half of 1995 at least 26 executions for drug offences were carried out. The true figures are certainly much higher. At least 100 people are believed to have been executed for drug offences since 1975. Despite the death penalty, drug addiction has increased in Singapore. In October 1994 the Minister of Home Affairs reportedly stated that between December 1990 and December 1993 the total addict population in Singapore’s five drug rehabilitation centers rose by 30 per cent to 7,400. By August 1994 the number had risen to 7,700. (5)

Not harsh enough

By the end of 1994, the number was 8,700 (6). Singapore’s “addicts” have also not been deterred by the harsh “treatment” programs. In the March 16 Singapore Straight Times, it was reported that there was a rise in the number of first-time addicts admitted to Drug Rehabilitation Centers (DRCs), from 912 in 1992 to 1,488 in 1994. “We need to take a tougher and a more drastic stand against drug addicts to deter them from relapsing” said the Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng. Two weeks later, the two year “rehabilitation period” in Malaysia was doubled to four years. Slavery was also introduced:

[Deputy Home Minister Datuk Megat Junid Megat Ayob] said: “We will try to make some changes in the rehabilitation approach, by asking fully-rehabilitated addicts to work in companies or cottage industries set up in the centers.” Those still undergoing rehabilitation would be asked to do farming and rear chickens, ducks and fish within the center to become self-sufficient. (7)

Back at home

Stunned at Singapore’s incredible success rate (or at least impressed with the chicken-rearing possibilities), Canadian politicians began to call for change. Of course, Toronto, Onterrible was the first to jump on the “decrim/slavery” system:

First-time marijuana offenders are being smoked out of the courts. Federal justice officials at Toronto’s Old City Hall are sending dope smokers to do community work instead of hitting them with criminal records. There are about 10 diversions a week in Toronto, said Croft Michaelson, the Justice Department’s senior lawyer in Toronto. “This way, they can put something back into the community,” Michaelson said Thursday. (8)

Not wanting to be left out of the action, Vancouver’s laid back Mayor Owen proposed the concept of “Drug Courts”. Drug courts sound good at first – no criminal record – but wait till you hear the catch:

The idea of a drug court would be to discourage or divert someone who was entering the drug world, and try to get that person off that path to destruction,” Owen said yesterday. He sees offenders doing community service, being referred to counselors, or entering rehab centers rather than sitting in jail. Attorney-General Ujjal Dosanjh said drug courts could be a part of an anti-drug strategy – but only if it’s done nationally. “You don’t want to do something in Vancouver that isn’t being done elsewhere, or you’ll have all the addicts coming here,” said Dosanjh. (9)

The Attorney-General should have just waited till all of BC’s addicts moved to Toronto to take advantage of all that tolerance. Dosanjh later said that he had been “inspired by the visits to a community court in New York and a drug court in Portland, Ore., where addicts are diverted into treatment programs and their progress closely supervised by the judiciary.”(10) He went on to say;

After reading about the experience in both of those places, I believe a drug court would be appropriate for the Downtown Eastside,” Dosanjh said. We need one and we need one at the earliest possible [time].” (10)

Portland – the future of the drugwar

What inspired our Attorney General so? It was described in detail in a cover-page-plus-two-page story in the November 1st Province:

With more than 300 drug courts operating in the U.S., there is a variety of approaches. In Oregon, it all begins with an arrest for possession of drugs, anything from marijuana to cocaine, methamphetamines (speed) or heroin. On the next day, you are arraigned in a regular court – what would be a “first appearance” here. Those who are eligible – no outstanding felony charges, evidence of drug trafficking or outstanding warrants from other jurisdictions – are given a day to see a lawyer and think their options over. On the third day, they appear in drug court. They must waive the right to a speedy trial, and agree that if they fail they will be tried on the police report alone – which takes mere minutes and almost always results in conviction. The program consists of 12 months of court-ordered and court-monitored treatment that’s six days a week at first. And at first there are weekly review hearings by the court that drop to once every 30 days unless there are problems. Those who opt for the STOP program (Sanctions, Treatment, Opportunities and Progress) are given 14 days to try it out. If they don’t want to continue, they can opt back into the regular court system. People who miss treatment dates or fail random drug tests face court- imposed sanctions. They can be ordered to sit for several days in court, ordered to take daily drug tests, or even be jailed for a few days. Warrants are issued for those who take off part-way through. When they are arrested, they can be thrown out of the program and sentenced immediately. Those who complete the program must pay, over the 12 months, $400 toward the cost of the program – a fee that can be waved at the court’s discretion. After a year, if they prove to be drug-free with six consecutive clean tests, they graduate, get a diploma and the original charges are dropped. The cost per person is about $2,000. The budget for the program is about $1.1 million. More than 1,400 people have graduated over the seven years the program has been running. Graduates have one-third the number of arrests of those who didn’t go through the program. Even those who didn’t complete the program seem to have benefited. (1)

Gone to the dogs

As usual, the editors of the Vancouver Sun were their left-wing, liberal, anti-establishment selves as they gave the drug courts ringing endorsements in editorial after editorial. Here are two examples:

“Yes, it’s sad and it’s frustrating, but we’re going to continue,” police spokeperson Anne Drennan told the Province editorial board yesterday. “We’re not giving up. What’s the alternative; let the neighbourhood go to the dogs? Eventually, someone has to realize something has to give. It’s got to hit home sooner or later.” Tougher immigration laws, tougher judges, drug courts, transition houses, detox centers and rehabilitation centers – you name it, the city needs it, she says, or we’ll never crack the drug problem. (11)

Illegal drugs and crime go hand-in-hand. How could in be otherwise? Users most often steal to support their addiction, or they deal drugs, sell themselves for sex or worse. Why then would Attorney-General Ujjal Dosanjh, Vancouver Mayor Phillip Owen and Vancouver Police Chief Bruce Chambers all champion drug courts like those in the majority of the United States, which keep addicts out of the criminal justice system? There are two good reasons: Jail costs far more than treatment and does not work as well; and an American study found treatment was seven times more cost-effective than force of law. Toronto, where a drug court is being given a trial run, did it’s own math. The cost of jail for one year: $45,000. Treatment: $4,000. Drug courts give addicts rehabilitation and training along with random urinalysis and regular appearances at court for review. Too many failing grades mean jail time. It is a sensible program that offers help to those who show sincere desire to clean up, but it is doomed to failure in Vancouver. As the city planning department’s report from July last year points out, “[The] lack of resources cannot be overstated . . . there is not enough of anything and waiting lists for everything.” Without treatment the idea of drug courts is stillborn. But with new money for social programs in Tuesday’s federal budget, the province might be able to make a start. (12)

An even faster buck

Where is the government going to get the revenue necessary to build these drug courts? From the “recalcitrant drug abusers”, of course! This is the most recent form of “decrim” – the “between $500 and $1000” fines that will “be enough to fund treatment programs that would have to be established”, in the words of Keith Martin.

“It sounds like an idea worthy of having a serious look at,” (Vancouver Police Chief Bruce) Chambers said yesterday. “I would want to ensure that if this was in fact done, we’d be doing it in a manner that wouldn’t be sending the wrong message to youths – that drugs are OK.” Under the plan, anyone caught in possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana or less than one gram of hashish would sign a statement admitting his guilt. He’d pay a fine without having to go through the court system and would not have a criminal record. The change would not apply to possession of heroin.

They always get their moolah – er – man

Of course, the Royal Canadian Mounted Peppersprayers were in like Flynn. They needed a way to raise money for their next war against them uppity Indians – or human rights protesters.

In a statement released Friday, (RCMP assistant commissioner Rene) Charbonneau said drug use and abuse is a many-sided, health-related problem “deserving of a multi-faceted solution.” He noted a key element of the police approach to the drug problem involves promoting programs that reduce demand for marijuana and other illegal substances. . . .A recent policy paper issued by the Mounties says the force believes legalization would not end drug-related crime or the black market in currently illegal substances. The paper adds that legalization would also take away an important deterrent, and would “indicate to kids that drug use is accepted.” (14)


Lets see . . . the Reform Party, the City of Vancouver, the VPD, the RCMP, the A.G. of BC, The United Snakes, Stinkapore, both the Province and the Sun all seem to be in favor of drug courts, mandatory treatment and “demand reduction”. Meanwhile, the medical marijuana movement seems more interested in consolidating it’s itty bitty gains rather than expanding their definition of medicine to protect more users.

Me? I’m holding out for November 17th and 18th, 1999, in the BC Supreme court of Appeal, where Me and John Conroy get another kick at the “Recreation” can. Even if it isn’t all medicinal use, and even if you can survive without it – it’s still harmless fun. And unless we as a society protect the harmless, no one is safe.

(1)-“Judge Last Chance gives addicts hope – The Portland antidote” (Sunday, November 1, 1998 Province)

(2)-Attack on demand key to drug war’ (February 23, 1990 Province)

(3)-Reform MP wants pot decriminalized (February 12, 1997 Province)

(4)-In Malaysia and Singapore, a Mixed Drug Picture (December 15, 1989 New York Times)

(5)-The Death Penalty: No Solution to Illicit Drugs (October, 1995 Amnesty International)

(6)-Tougher measures on the cards to tackle recalcitrant addicts (March 16, 1995 Singapore Straight Times)

(7)-Rehabilitation time to be doubled (March 29, 1995 Singapore Straight Times)

(8)-Pot offenders diverted’ (March 6, 1998 London Free Press)

(9)-Vancouver mayor says drug courts may be an answer (October 14, 1998 Province)

(10)-Dosanjh proposes drug courts on Eastside (December 24, 1998 Vancouver Sun

(11)-City police drug arrests are in vain (January 14, 1999, Vancouver Sun Op-Ed)

(12)-Drug courts are a smart, cost-effective investment (February 17, 1999 Vancouver Sun)

(13)-Police like the look of pot-penalty plan (April 22, 1999 Province)

(14)-RCMP support decriminalization for marijuana – The Mounties back a new policy allowing officers to ticket people with small amounts of the drug. (circa April 26, 1999 Vancouver Sun)