War on drugs is blowing up in our faces, expert warns

Why do people sell drugs? In a variation of the old question, Eugene Oscapella pauses in front of his audience gathered at the Harm Reduction…

Why do people sell drugs?

In a variation of the old question, Eugene Oscapella pauses in front of his audience gathered at the Harm Reduction Conference at the Gold Rush Inn.

He answers his own question. First — money, second — money, and third — money. 

His premise? That the war on drugs has served to create a black market so fantastically lucrative that it has perpetuated an industry worth billions of dollars that has financed organized crime for decades, destabilized countries around the world, failed to stop people from using drugs and made using drugs more dangerous than the practice would otherwise be.

The Ottawa law professor, with his glasses, tie and brown suede jacket, appears an unlikely proponent for the de-criminalization of drugs. Yet he has spent the last 20 years advocating for public drug policy that is logical and humane.

When asked about the difficulty and frustrations of his undertaking, he shrugs it off with: “It’s my calling.” 

Oscapella is absolutely convinced that the prohibition of drugs is “the most significant failing of the criminal justice system of the 20th, and now, 21st centuries.”

He keeps his eyes down, as if ashamed of Canadian policy.

This year is the 100th anniversary of prohibition in Canada.

Starting with the Anti-Opium Act of 1908, Canada has successively criminalized more drugs with various pieces of legislation.

 “We couldn’t have done a worse job if we tried,” says Oscapella, reviewing the consequences throughout the century.

Today’s gang wars are reminiscent of the ‘30s during alcohol prohibition, he says.

“We criminalize and create a fantastically lucrative market.”

Criminals regulate their trade with guns and defend their vested interests.

 “The enormous profits are purely a function of prohibiting the drug,” he argues.

He makes his case with a comparison between caffeine and cocaine — both central nervous system stimulants, both produced in Colombia and both potentially lethal in large or concentrated doses.

But one is sold in Starbucks and the other through the black market.

Whereas coffee beans cross borders freely, coca leaves must be refined and concentrated into small packages to avoid border detection.

The effect of this processing and concentration increases the drug’s potency and, as a consequence, the danger to the end user.

Another slide shows that it costs about $900 to produce a kilo of heroin (from 10 kilos of opium at $90 per kilo to the grower), which retails in the US for around $290,000.

With a mark-up of over 32,000 per cent, the margin on caffeine slivers by comparison.

So while caffeine users are able to safely consume their drug of choice in attractive coffee shops and restaurants, cocaine users are relegated to back alleys and jail cells.

“There’s not a prison in this country where you can’t get access to drugs. The simple fact is that if they can’t control drugs in a situation where people are locked in four walls, 24 hours a day, how do they expect to control it in a country with tens of thousands of kilometres of borders?” he asks.

Eugene Oscapella is not pro-drugs.

He has never even tried marijuana.

He admits that people think that de-criminalization will result in drugs everywhere.

But, “we have drugs everywhere,” he says.

What he advocates is a system of regulation, control and discouragement.

He envisions solutions that come from a public health perspective.

“You have to find out why people want to use drugs. The criminal justice system doesn’t ask this key question — what makes some people use drugs in a way that is problematic. We have to deal with the underlying causes — poverty, genetics, personal trauma — if we are going to be successful.” Putting more people in jail will not help.

During his presentation in the Yukon College pit, he was even more straightforward.

“We don’t put people in jail for having tuberculosis,” he says.

Then he flips forward through his presentation, admitting a need for some comic relief.

He flashes a Humpty Dumpty cartoon.

“If all the king,s horses and all the kings men couldn’t put Humpty together again, then why call for more horses and more men?”

It serves as his introduction to the consequences of federal Bill C-26 to amend the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, introduced by the Harper government in November 2007.

This act will create mandatory minimum penalties for drug offences and increase the maximum sentence for growing marijuana.

Oscapella believes that increasing the penalties to a maximum of 14 years will drive, what he refers to as, the “plentiful Ma and Pa grow operations” out of business as they re-assess the risks of supplementing their incomes.

“So small-scale, non-violent producers may be out of the market, but who will come in? More organized, violent and ruthless operators. The overall effect of the legislation will be to hand over the trade, even more than it is now, to organized crime.”

 In support, he describes a Florida experience — three months after a drug sweep, a community realized it had only caught the stupid dealers.

Citizens desperately wished they had their old dealers back.

Eugene Oscapella warrants listening to.

He is associated with the Law Reform Commission of Canada and is a founding member of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy.

He is assisting some Latin American countries with their drug policies and is expected to testify before the parliamentary committee on Bill C-26 this spring.

He can be seen on YouTube.

He’s not in it for the money.

For him it is an issue of logic, economics, and law.

Prohibition makes drugs profitable.

If there wasn’t money in drugs, the kids wouldn’t deal, the bad guys wouldn’t traffic, gangs wouldn’t have turf wars, drug users wouldn’t line back alleys, and billions in profits wouldn’t fund terrorist organizations around the world.

A student asks why society doesn’t question it.

“We’ve been doing it so long, it’s akin to asking why we drive on the right-hand side of the road,” he says.

On this 100th anniversary of prohibition, maybe we have to ask ourselves, are we addicted to prohibition?

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