1. What is your opinion on legal recreational cannabis?
As noted, recreational cannabis usage was recently legalized in Canada and several U.S. states, and medical/prescription cannabis is legal in many U.S. states where legal use is still criminalized. There are many valid arguments on each side of this issue. Those opposed to legal cannabis raise a number of concerns – for one, we do not have reliable field sobriety tests for THC like we do for alcohol, making driving under the influence difficult to determine. As well, while research is still limited, some recent studies have suggested that cannabis use in late childhood and early adulthood can exacerbate pre-existing mental illness. On the other hand, advocates have emphasized that greater availability of legal cannabis may make it easier for medical marijuana patients to access their medication, as there have been gaps in access for those prescribed this substance. As well, there is a lot of tax revenue to be generated from taxation on legal cannabis, and far fewer law enforcement resources would be expended on cannabis if it were equal, opening up funds for other law enforcement issues. Personally, having considered such things, I am in favor of legal recreational cannabis for those old enough to consume alcohol. Legalization will, ideally, bring in funding from tax dollars which in turn can be used for research into both the benefits and dangers of cannabis usage, as well as public education campaigns as such research becomes available. As well, funding made available by reduced police expenditures could go into developing field sobriety testing for THC – this is important on two counts: first, we can ensure our roadways are safe with reliable sobriety testing, and second, we can ensure that those not directly under the influence are not wrongfully charged. Currently, if a person is suspected of being under the influence of THC, a mandatory urinalysis may return a positive result if the person has consumed THC any time in the last 30 days, potentially resulting in wrongful charging and conviction. As well, getting medical marijuana patients their medication more easily and effectively should be a high priority. Lastly, the charges and convictions resulting from arrests for cannabis have been historically discriminatory, with minority communities often facing harsher sentencing for even minor offenses. As such, legalization – so long as it brings widespread pardons for past offenses – can help rectify a long-standing social injustice.
2. What is your opinion on legalizing or decriminalizing other illicit substances, such as cocaine, heroin, or MDMA?
First, addressing the question requires clarification, since legalizing and decriminalizing are not the same thing. Legalizing means full and open access, usually to people above a certain age, with no illicit status for anyone, whether manufacturer, dealer, or consumer. Decriminalization often refers more specifically to users of such substances, while manufacturing and selling remain illegal. This is the model that has been used in Portugal for over a decade. Under their model, no one who is caught using such substances will be subject to arrest, but are rather encouraged to undergo treatment and rehabilitation, with support to do so from the state. For the purposes of this answer, I will focus on a model such as this one. Those opposed to drug decriminalization are concerned that it would lead to an increase in drug consumption, which can have detrimental effects not only on those who use such substances, but on society at large. After all, a significant community of drug users would likely not be a very healthy or productive society. As well, decriminalization of use may lead to increased manufacture of such drugs, which could exacerbate crime elsewhere, or lead to increased violence among those who develop and export these substances. On the other hand, those who support decriminalization tend to focus on drug use as a social and mental health issue, rather than one of individual failings or shortcomings. A system based around care and rehabilitation, rather than incarceration, of users would eliminate the fear of arrest many undergo if they seek treatment. As well, if this were part of a national, public health care system, the cost of treatment would not be prohibitive, as cost is another barrier to care experienced by many. While I personally do not have enough information to confidently support either side, I do think that Portugal itself provides an interesting and compelling example for what could be possible with decriminalization. An approach that fosters care and support has helped a great many people suffering from drug dependency (addiction), and drug use rates have not increased in the 10+ years since this policy was implemented. That said, what works in one nation is not necessarily universalizable. So, if I had the position and resources to explore this issue further, I’d want to meet with doctors, police, politicians, recovering users, and other such parties in Portugal, to learn more about their system and how and why it seems to be working. I’d also put together a multi-disciplinary research team to explore other efforts and drug liberalization laws to see what has and hasn’t been tried. If it did turn out that Portugal’s tactics could work elsewhere, then I could consider supporting decriminalization efforts.
3. What do you think is the key driver of illegal drug consumption, and what can be done to address this?
While there are surely some who use such substances to derive pleasure at a recreational level, many who abuse illicit substances do so from a place of pain, emptiness, or loss (similar to those who abuse alcohol). As we’ve seen in the United States, gaps in health care have contributed to the current opioid crisis, wherein those without insurance for specialists or complex treatments have filled that gap with narcotic painkillers, and this gap is most evident in low-income and otherwise medically underserved areas. Similarly, research has shown that excessive drug abuse and dependency often correlates with things like trauma, childhood abuse, poverty, mental illness, and other social and medical issues. While drug consumption as a whole cannot be reduced to such causes, such correlations cannot simply be ignored – we have to follow what the evidence shows. As such, I think that the key drivers of illegal drug consumption are social and medical in nature. Simply treating such drug abuse as a moral issue, or an issue of individual failing or weakness, and criminalizing based on that, misses the root causes of such behavior. As noted above, treating drug use as an issue of mental health, such as in Portugal, and having accessible treatment and rehabilitation for all could lead to both a greater understanding of such behavior, as well as more options for treatment and a decrease in overall drug addiction. Studies from multiple disciplines, including physical health, mental health, and even sociology, have turned up similar insights, suggesting that a multidisciplinary approach that re-frames the narrative around drug use may be the best way to advocate for those who self-medicate because they are suffering physically, mentally, and/or socially. However, additional research is necessary to form a firm opinion.