Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship (HMCS) ATHABASKAN comes up along side a Vessel Of Interest while on patrol during Op CARIBBE, October 1, 2014. ©DND 2014
Photo by: Cpl Anthony Chand, Formation Imaging Services Halifax

The Ridiculous War on Drugs

The ‘War on Drugs’ in North America has been ongoing for about a century now. Canada prohibited opium with the Opium Act in 1908 as part of the government’s racist policies concerning Asians[1]. Also, around this time, the States were using racism and fear-mongering to make drugs like marijuana illegal[2] and of course used a Constitutional amendment in 1919 to prohibit alcohol. Canada also prohibited alcohol with PEI banning the booze starting in 1901 with all provinces except Quebec joining in by 1917. The Canadian prohibition movement slowly started to lose steam with PEI being the last hold-out in 1948[3]. Other drugs like marijuana and cocaine were quietly put on the books during this time and Western governments have been fighting the drug-using portions of their populations ever since.

In the interests of full disclosure, here is the extent of my personal experimentation with illicit drugs. Growing up in Kelwood, MB, I knew there was access to marijuana. I even heard some rumours of cocaine floating around. Alcohol was my drug of choice and occasionally as a young man I went to a house or bush party for some drinking. Later in university, alcohol was again my favourite drug. I joined the military at the age of 19, so I stayed away from other drugs due to the punitive measures associated with them. Since I had limited experience with drugs, including smoking, it was an eye-opening experience to see the marijuana culture on Vancouver Island when I moved there in 2000. Finally, in my mid-thirties I tried a few puffs, had one too many pot cookies and tried a magic mushroom. The experimentation didn’t do much for me plus I was headed back towards jobs in the Coast Guard and military where strict measures against illegal drug use were in place. So if you’re looking for an expert on the affects of drugs other than alcohol, you need someone else’s advice. As for alcohol, I love the depth and breadth of varieties available from all over the world but that product is mostly legal with various restrictions. I use alcohol because I like the taste and social aspects of this particular drug. I do not abuse alcohol because of the after effects and societal penal measures.

So why the revelation of my limited drug experience? I want to make the point that the so-called War on Drugs has been ridiculous, wasteful and is directly financing criminal organizations. Human beings for various reasons need outlets to socialize, cope or to enhance their lives. Some turn to religion, hobbies, gambling, booze, smoking, other drugs, you name it. For the vast majority of people, they can function quite fine thank you and what I do doesn’t affect you so stay out of my business. A tiny minority end up harming themselves and others. So what’s society’s first response to a person exhibiting a drug problem? Punitive measures. America is the worst with a drug related incarceration rate that has gone off the charts[4]. Even up in Canada, you have to be scared of even one drink before driving up to a Check Stop. Culturally, we have been taught to demonize drug users as morally reprehensible addicts, pot heads with reefer madness[5] or criminals on the marginal edges of society. Until Canadian law changes next year[6], simple marijuana possession results in criminal records for tens of thousands of Canadians annually.[7] The 30 gram personal use limit being talked about currently could result in a Possession for the Purposes of Trafficking minimum sentence of 1-2 years[8]. Obviously, with so many heavy disciplinary measures against drug use, citizens should have long ago been scared straight and like me, been satisfied with the state allowing you to enjoy a few drinks.

Instead, U.S. and Canadian citizens have disregarded ever increasing draconian drug laws, vilifying propaganda, and alarmist political hyperbole to the point where marijuana first was legalized for medical use, then recreational use in a few states, to universal availability next year for Canada. Similar to alcohol prohibition, the populace using the herb has increased to the point where the costs and numbers are so high, the state overlords have conceded defeat.[9] Marijuana use has been steadily increasing despite concerted government efforts[10]. Personally, I do not particularly like Justin Trudeau’s government but I believe he is correct to reform the cannabis laws. Alternatively, Kellie Leitch, one of the Conservative Party leader contenders has a strong position against marijuana and I believe that stance will hurt her. The population has spoken and the efforts of the narcs have gone up in smoke.

So why do so many people use illegal drugs when the consequences can be so dire? From my observations, I believe that humans need outlets of some sort especially during times of stress. Marriage partners wouldn’t cheat on one another if they were happy in their union. Self-harming behaviors increase as you become more depressed. For example, anxious American soldiers in Vietnam used copious amounts of heroin in order to function[11]. Even fairly happy people enjoy a break from everyday reality on occasion, hence TGIF for the Air Force and Weepers for the Navy. I saw an interesting example of ‘letting loose’ from the Jordanian military officers who were on language training with me in Quebec. They were devout Muslims, praying five times a day (which included a middle of the night prayer), no pork, no alcohol and no womanizing. Pretty much a no fun kind of life compared to Western soldiers. But pull out the hookah pipe (their term was Hubbly Bubbly) and they would become giddy as school girls. No, they explained, it was straight tobacco, a harsh manly variety, not that flavoured Western stuff made for women. All humans use some form of activity to escape from reality. If your reality is particularly bad then you might turn to a harsh drug to compensate. But if you’re caught out, then society labels you a moral failure and is likely to toss in a criminal record for good measure. Three guesses as to whether that will make your life better or worse.

I am not advocating handing out pot candies to seven year olds or letting people shoot up heroin on every street corner. What make eminent sense to logical, sane people who have seen the affects of drugs, is to decriminalize the practice and approach the issue from a health, harm reduction point of view. I worked for a short period of time in the Main and Hastings area of Vancouver as a Coroner’s assistant. It is hell on earth and the land of walking zombies. The downward spiral that brings a person to this point is short lived as by my rough estimate most of the junkies had a life expectancy of 6 to 24 months. We would make bets on how soon we would be picking up a particular walking corpse. Plus, sad to say, the sooner they die, the sooner they stop being a horrendous financial drain[12]. I also worked as a first aid attendant at GM Place in Vancouver and observed substantial drug use and their different affects. If you worked a Garth Brooks concert with the stadium full of wannabe cowboys drinking beer, you were guaranteed to have fist fights. But when the Upper Bowl was obscured from all the pot smoke during an Ozzy Osbourne concert, the crowd calmly dispersed home after his voice gave out on the third song. Alcoholics create much more mayhem compared to pot smokers. Even hard drug users could be productive members of society if society wouldn’t knock out all their support structures. If you want proof, then Portugal is the poster child for total decriminalization of all drugs[13].

We already have proof that a public health approach works better than a stick over the head method. While I was in BC, it was more socially acceptable to light up a doobie than it was to have a smoke. After years of getting the message out to smokers that the habit was detrimental to everyone’s health, rates especially amongst the young have steadily decreased. The same can be said for binge drinking and alcohol abuse. I say the same approach should be taken to deal with all harmful substances. Most people realize that huffing glue, snorting coke, smoking Meth, shooting heroin, downing a 40 ouncer nightly, or whatever your poison, probably isn’t the best of life choices. But if they want to engage in harmful practices and stick poison into their bodies then that’s up to them and if it’s not bothering anyone then that’s their business. Just over a hundred years ago, when you could buy opium syringe kits and heroin through Sears and Roebucks[14], the government decided to get concerned with what people were putting into their bodies. But instead of studying and regulating the issue, it became the age of prohibition. Too bad that as a society we didn’t implement an educational, supportive system to give hope and a way out to individuals who overreach their personal capabilities and let their habits get away from them. The retributive approach has more than proven to be a costly and total waste of effort.

Newspaper ad for children’s cocaine toothache drops

I have a medal for my Operation CARIBBE[15] participation with the Royal Canadian Navy. On my two trips, we hassled a few vessels, scared a few ‘go-fasts’ into jettisoning their cargo and ran a cargo ship out of fuel. That ship was subsequently towed to Guantanamo Bay, stripped and let loose after nothing was found. I vividly recall when my destroyer ‘pulled over’ a Canadian sailing vessel and relieved the man of his baggie of weed. Under the auspices of a UN charter, our US Coast Guard ‘muscle’ boarded, searched and confiscated a miniscule amount of plant material from a man minding his own business out in international waters. I was sickened and ashamed of my role. Even when the interdiction forces are somewhat more successful such as during the recent cocaine seizures on the West side with HMCS Saskatoon, they only stop a small fraction of the drug flow[16]. The War on Drugs by any measure has been a spectacular flop.

Compounding the abject failure to slow down the drug flow to populations that are clamoring for more product, is the fact that money from the drug sales is going into the hands of really, really bad people. Before the purported CIA machinations in pre-Soviet Afghanistan, there was little opium trade in the area. Now, the Taliban run and profit from an industry that supplies close to 90% of the world’s opium[17]. Mexico’s infamous Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was on the Forbes World’s Billionaires List for several years running. Columbian cocaine cartels have enough excess cash to start building their own mini-submarine fleets. These are particularly nasty people who are financing their nefarious organizations off the insatiable demand for their goods. Why in heaven’s name do we not legalize everything and cut their business out from under them? Instead we just keep financing them, spend billions on wasted enforcement efforts and needlessly destroy people’s lives.

Thankfully some common sense is percolating through political channels here in North America. After cannabis legalization goes through next year, I might grow a plant or two for the novelty and may even have a joint or a pot candy. I am more excited for the return of hemp and all the useful products that can be produced from the plant[18].

Happy 4:20 Day!

[1] Opium was in use by Asians in Vancouver and future Prime Minister Mackenzie King was investigating the 1907 anti-Asian riots for the federal government. It was feared that opium smoking would become popular with white people hence the beginning of drug prohibitions. Marijuana was criminalized in 1923.

[2] Marijuana was touted as a drug that would drive you insane like the crazy Mexicans. White women would sleep with the Negro, you would listen to devil jazz music and you would murder your family with an axe. California was the first state in 1913 to outlaw the plant.

[3] Prohibition in Canada was promoted as doing your patriotic duty for King and Country during World War I. Alcohol went underground and numerous ‘speakeasies’ or ‘blind pigs’ sprung up to quench people’s thirst.

[4] America by far incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world. Russia and Rwanda are next at 2/3rds of America’s rate. Canada is in 8th place at about 1/7th of the top rate. From 1925 to 1962, US citizens in State and Federal prisons slowly rose from about 100,000 to 200,000. Then in 1973, the numbers rose exponentially to 2.2 million Americans locked up today with another 4.7 million on probation. A full half of the Federal prisons are full of people on non-violent drug charges. From 1980 to 2015, the drug incarceration rate rose from 8% to 21% of the total prison population. State costs for locking everyone up has ballooned from 6.7 billion in 1985 to 56.9 billion in 2015.

[5] Reefer Madness (1936) is a cult film about how good white kids can be hooked on pot. After one joint, they will turn to a life of toking, jazz and despair. The propaganda plays into the fears that teenagers will use marijuana as a gateway drug and ruin their lives.

[6] The Liberal government has proposed to legalize and regulate Cannabis by mid-2018.

[7] Over the years, even Canadian Police Associations have recognized the overly punitive penalties for simple marijuana possession are counter-productive. Stats for 2007 indicated that of the 100,000 drug possession charges, 47,000 were for marijuana. The associated criminal charges end up being very costly to society and the persons involved.

[8] 30 grams of pot, the equivalent of a full baggie, could easily be construed as an amount large enough to traffic which would result in a lengthy minimum sentence.

[9] In 2012, an estimated 3.4 million or 12.2% of Canadians used marijuana. 43% of all Canadians have tried it at some point. Strangely, NS had the highest use of 16% versus BC use of 14.5%. A older woman living in a Saskatchewan rural area has the lowest usage percentage.

[10] Stats from 2013 estimate that close to 10% of Americans have used illicit drugs in the last month which is up almost 10% in a decade. Marijuana, used by about 6% of the population, is the drug of choice with other illicit drug use generally holding steady or in decline except for Meth which has upticked. Interestingly, nonmedical prescription drug use is about a third of the rate of marijuana use. Alcohol and tobacco use, dependency and abuse rates are all steadily decreasing. Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

[11] Time Magazine reported that 20% of American soldiers were doing heroin while in Vietnam. Paradoxically, 95% of these ‘hooked on heroin’ junkies mostly quit on their own once returning to Stateside presumably to a more pleasant environment. The theory is if you place a person in an austere, hopeless environment with little human interaction and little hope, they will take solace in what’s available such as drugs. Give them better choices and they will shy away from self-harming behaviors. Source – Chasing The Scream: The First And Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Harl.

[12] In 2014, the Vancouver Sun reported on the actual per person costs of a downtown Eastside junkie. Over a five year period, 300 people cost the province just in health, social welfare and justice services about $90,000 each. All the other social services associated with their care were estimated to substantially increase the costs of their care.

[13] In 2001, in order to combat the country’s drug issues, Portugal decriminalized the use of all drugs. The experiment has been quite successful due to a public health approach versus criminal.

[14] Opium, laudanum, cocaine and morphine were widely available in America. If you couldn’t get to a store, you could order it along with a syringe kit through the popular mail-order catalogue. Cocaine drops were for your teething children and genteel white woman of Temperance associations took tonics (laudanum) as nightcaps. Source – Drugs Across the Spectrum, Raymond Goldberg, page 172.

[15] The RCN regularly sends ships and aircraft to the West and East Caribbean for drug interdiction operations with a host of other countries all led by the US Coast Guard.

[16] During a 2016 UN conference to discuss the issue, despite the billions spent on drug interdiction, this is a Golden Age of Drug Trafficking. Just the cost of my ship down in the Eastern Caribbean for a month’s patrol cost in the range of 3 to 4 million.

[17] Worldwide profits from illegal drugs are conservatively estimated at $500 billion/yr. Afghan farmers would like to grow crops other than poppies but between the profits and pressure from the Taliban, they are unable.

[18] During World War II, due to a shortage of rope making material for Navy ships, prohibition against hemp was lifted. Due to a quirk in the law, this very useful plant was again prohibited after the war. The THC content is very low, (< 1%) so you would have to smoke an inordinate amount to get high.

Blair’s LinkedIn Profile

Blair is a personification of a ‘Jack of All Trades and Master of None’. He has held several careers and has all the T-shirts. Time to add the title Blogger to the list.