At the level of government policy and people who have these overblown fears about addiction, they don’t actually give the users enough credit for knowing a lot about drugs. They also know a lot about harm and they have a lot of good ideas. In fact, many have fuelled our best harm reduction initiatives.
So, for me, cannabis has always been kind of the beachhead for prohibition. That’s why it’s been fought so hard, because the idea is that, “Well, if you let cannabis through, everybody’s gonna be following with more and more drugs.” And, of course, that isn’t true. We know from all the surveys of young people that very few young people under 16 use cannabis very often, and much less try other drugs. One of the studies by Eric Single in America was able to show that one of the factors that helped to explain why so many people used drugs other than cannabis was because the dealers had the different drugs to offer.
So, the actual illegality of cannabis helped to promote marketing among at least some dealers; that’s part of the roots of the Dutch system. They said, “Let’s separate the market.” They were brilliant back in 1970 or so, and it took us a long time to catch on.
So I think that’s an important factor – to separate the cannabis market now and to look at the other substances that we have to worry about separately, and say, “Well, what is the right policy?” We obviously have to deal with the opioid epidemic in some way, but the demand was generated before the fentanyl started coming in because of the pharmaceutical companies’ marketing that created all the Oxycontin users. And then, when their legal drugs got pulled off, some of them went to the illegal market and didn’t know what they were getting.
Safe injection sites, important as they are, (and the regional ones actually were like the new forward approach), they wanted to be multi-dimensional and offer treatment for people who wanted it. But the thing is that right now, you have people dying who are middle class recreational users. I’ve heard from my students who know someone using cocaine, that they got fentanyl instead. They’re not necessarily the group that we thought of that were gonna access the safe injection sites like in Vancouver, or in Moss Park, or places here where we know there’s a larger group of marginalised drug users.
So, we have to worry about the population as a whole, and that can be what propels change, in a sense that the impetus for marijuana policy change (in the 1970s) came when we realised that middle class kids were the ones that were getting criminal records. And, like it or not, the fact that all the people who are dying of opioid overdose aren’t located in our inner city poor areas, that also is an impetus that I think will start rethinking a better, more health-oriented perspective.
– Pat Erickson is a Professor in the Department of Sociology and the Centre for Crime and Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Toronto.
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