Drug policy from Zurich to Vancouver: more police, or more doctors?

Photo of former president of Switzerland Ruth Dreifuss at a International Drug Policy Debate in March by CSIS via Flickr

Should drug users be treated as health patients or criminals? Should most drugs be legal regulated, and taxed, rather than kept illegal? Which approach has better social and economic outcomes? These are questions familiar to the ears of all Vancouverites, and for answers it is helpful to consider what happens in Switzerland, one of the world’s wealthiest countries and also a very conservative one.

Over the past decades, Switzerland has chosen to approach drug policy in a mature fashion, recognising that drug users are also members of society, and need to be addressed via the public health system where possible, and that this approach is more economically effective and humane than reliance on the criminal justice system.

Speaking at  an event on the future of global drug policy in London last week, Ruth Dreifuss, former president of Switzerland,  reminded the audience that “you need far more than just doctors and police: you need social workers, you need people who are involved in housing policy or in looking at how a city is organized and so on. The importance is that all these people know exactly what the others do and collaborate, for a coherent policy.”

The well-documented experience of Switzerland and other European countries in regulating recreational drug use, and the wave of state-led marijuana legalisation across the United States, begs the question of where Canadian policy is headed on the same issues? By 2015, new legislation in Oregon will permit residents over the age of 21 to grow their own cannabis and keep up to four mature marijuana plants.

Meanwhile, back in Canada, the federal government continues to pursue backward approaches to drug policy, funding prison expansion and fear-mongering communications campaigns, rather than education and holistic policy making along the lines of the Swiss model.

While civil society groups like Sensible BC campaign for legalisation of marijuana in British Columbia, it is already legal in neighbouring Washington state. With marijuana legalisation and alternative drug policy approaches gathering momentum, there will be much to play at the next UN General Assembly Special Session on drug policy reform in 2016.

Let’s hope that by 2016 Canadian drug policy is leading the world, rather than going in reverse!

View a video from Global Commission on Drug Policy below.

In a fairytale setting, the movie explains the disastrous war on drugs by telling the story of a dragon banished from an ancient kingdom, and how people that spent time with the dragon were thrown in jail.

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