Crime: Canada’s common sense approach trumps America’s zeal for incarceration

David vs. David

Canadian crime rates are comparable to those in Western Europe, which are far lower than in the U.S. For drug-related offences, however, the U.S. directs far more resources towards combating drug sales and use than Canada does, although studies suggest that rates of illegal use in the both countries are similar.

In recent decades, the rate of incarceration for convicted offenders has increased in Canada, the U.S. and some other Western nations.  About two decades ago, Canada's prison population was estimated at a rate of 102 prisoners per 100,000 residents. By 2008, it was 117. In sharp contrast, the prison population in the United States in 2010 indicated a rate of 743 per 100,000 — the highest in the world. High crime rates, the philosophy of selective incapacitation (most notably embodied in the "three strikes ... you're out" legislation) and the "War on Drugs" are all factors.

Canada and the U.S. differ on the death penalty. In 1976, it was abolished from Canada's Criminal Code and replaced with a mandatory life sentence without parole for all convicted of first degree murder. The homicide rate has subsequently decreased. Both Canadian and American research reached similar conclusions: compared to other punishments, the death penalty has not increased deterrence. As of September, 1,304 convicted murderers have been executed in the U.S. since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

A study two decades ago estimated that substance abuse cost Canadians more than $18.45 billion a year due to direct losses in the workforce, administrative costs, prevention and research, law enforcement and health care. Canada's "balanced approach" is to deal with both supply and demand by seeking to reduce the harmful effects on individuals, families and communities. Law enforcement agencies pursue traffickers and confiscate the proceeds of their crimes to strip them of their profits.

Our southern neighbour, known for supply-side actions such as spraying the fields of drug crops in developing countries, spends about 60 per cent of the "War on Drugs" funding on reducing supply. Canada's long-term goal is controversial: to reduce the harm associated with alcohol and other drugs by reducing the negative consequences of drug consumption and addiction.

Safe injection sites, controlled health care facilities where drug users take drugs under supervision, are one application of Canada's harm reduction approach. Addicts may also receive health care, counselling and referral to health and social services, including drug treatment. Preventing the ongoing spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, drug overdoses and deaths is paramount. Opponents say the sites encourage the use of drugs, including unsafe ones when no one tests the drug consumed.

Vancouver's Downtown Eastside has one of the largest concentrations of injection drug users in North America. HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C infection rates for heroin users have reached epidemic levels. In 2003, the city initiated North America's first legal supervised injection site pilot project — Insite. Since 2006, Insite's harm-reduction strategies have resulted in decreases in public disorder, syringe sharing, violence against women and overdose related fatalities; and increases in use of detox programs, addiction treatment and the successful management of overdoses.

In both Canada and the U.S., hydroponically-grown Canadian marijuana remains the illegal drug of choice. Despite RCMP crackdowns, resources are over-stretched and the number of home-grown operations continues to increase. While Canada lacks the U.S. zeal in fighting increased marijuana use, decriminalization or legalization of it and other "soft" drugs would represent a major departure from the strategy of punishing vendors.

Legalization and decriminalization advocates say that illicit drugs should be treated as a health problem. They worry that young adults experimenting with different substances will get caught and branded as "drug users" with criminal records. Enforcement, they feel, does not target experimental users, but rather higher-level drug traffickers involved in organized crime. In B.C., cannabis crusaders have drafted a proposed law, the Sensible Policing Act, which instructs police to stop arresting adults for possession, while minors still would not be allowed to possess pot.  The new law also calls upon the federal government to let B.C. go its own way on cannabis policy.

Canadian public opinion on decriminalizing marijuana use has shifted. In 2003, Canada became the first country to approve marijuana for medicinal use by cancer and AIDS patients. However, in 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a state law permitting doctors to prescribe marijuana.  Nevertheless, Washington, Oregon and Colorado are currently mulling legalized marijuana.

A decade ago, 51 % of Canadians favoured decriminalization of marijuana; 45% believed it should remain illegal; 4% had no opinion.  There is currently no real consensus among  us  about whether or not its use should be a criminal offense. What is clear, however, is that Canadian common sense prevents us from joining our neighbour in its "War on Drugs."

For the United States, the issue is less about Canadian use or abuse of drugs and more about Canada's position as a safe haven for drug producers, their exports to the United States, and Canadians' quirky indifference to American concern over marijuana use.

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.