Prohibition. It’s a word that conjures up grainy, black and white images of rumrunners, Al Capone and the tommy gun. But prohibition is alive and well in Stephen Harper’s Canada. New drug and prostitution laws reflect the government’s criminalization approach to dealing with social issues.
After winning a majority government in 2011, the Harper government quickly passed the Safe Streets and Communities Act, which introduced mandatory minimum sentencing for drug possession. This despite warnings from current and former law enforcement from the United States, four former attorneys general from BC, the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy and respected Canadian drug policy experts.
Mandatory minimum sentences do not address the root causes of why people use drugs, are ineffective in reducing the sale and use of illicit drugs and lead to high incarceration rates resulting in greater burdens on courts, law enforcement and prisons.
Three years later, the government transformed Health Canada’s successful medical marijuana program from one focused on the needs of patients to an industry of large-scale commercial producers. Medical cannabis patients were left scrambling and required to shell out hundreds of dollars only to be placed on waitlists as long as nine months.
But Harper has reserved his most dangerous drug policy laws for the most marginalized and vulnerable of all drug users: those who inject drugs.
Despite overwhelming scientific evidence showing that harm reduction services like those offered at Insite are incredibly effective in reducing the harms associated with illicit drug use, the Harper government has waged a costly war against Insite, culminating with The Respect for Communities Act that in 2015 established 26 new requirements that any applicant hoping to open Canada’s second supervised injection site would have to meet — requirements that are costly, onerous and designed to prevent future sites from opening.
Then there’s the Harper government’s response to sex work.
On December 20, 2013, sex workers across Canada got an early Christmas present from the Supreme Court of Canada. The court’s decision in Bedford v Canada struck down three of Canada’s most harmful prostitution laws. The court recognized that those laws made it impossible to practice the perfectly legal occupation of selling sexual services safely.
The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act was the Harper government’s response to the historic Bedford decision. The bill effectively reintroduced the old laws and introduced a prohibition on the purchase of sex and the explicit advertising of sexual services for the first time in Canadian history.
Despite a great deal of florid rhetoric about the government’s desire to ensure the safety of sex workers, the real intent behind the new laws was memorably stated by Senator Donald Plett: “Of course we don’t want to make life safe for prostitutes; we want to do away with prostitution. That’s the intent of the bill.”
What’s different about modern prohibition compared to the prohibition of alcohol in the 1930s is that it’s indirect. The purpose of Canada’s new drug and prostitution laws is to prohibit drug use and sex work by making both activities so difficult and dangerous that individuals will be forced to stop. The problem, just like in the 1930s, is that efforts to stop consenting adults from engaging in activities they choose to engage in don’t work.
The war on drugs is now widely recognized as a costly failure. Billions of dollars have been wasted and millions of lives have been snuffed out due to gang violence, police shootings, and mass incarceration. Efforts to abolish prostitution through the criminal justice system have failed all around the world and have created labour environments where sex workers are far more vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, and violence. It is time for Canada to take a new approach to dealing with complex social issues.