The War on Drugs: A Failed Experiment

By Paula Mallea
Dundurn Press, November 30, 2013, $22.99

The phrase the “War on Drugs” was coined by Richard Nixon during his campaign to eradicate illegal drug use and subsequently picked up by media, politicians and those allies who wanted to ‘crack down’ on drug offences.

But can the War on Drugs really be won? No, it can’t argues Paula Mallea in her new book The War on Drugs: A Failed Experiment because it is an inherently flawed strategy.

Mallea approaches the conversation on drugs from a variety of angles, offering insight into the history of drug use and abuse and the economy of the drug trade. But perhaps most importantly, Mallea discusses why this failed experiment of the War of Drugs was such a failure.

What can be done and what is being done in Canada, the U.S. and the rest of the world to move on from this ‘war’ asks Mallea. And, what better ways are there to address illegal drug use.

In this excerpt below, Mallea discusses just that.


If we are to design a workable response to drug use, we will have to first clear our minds of the propaganda that has permeated the debate for the past century. Myths about cocaine and overblown fears about heroin permeate popular culture and have infiltrated much of the discourse. Like most others, I bought the whole package. But it turns out drugs are just drugs, although some are more harmful than others. And the biggest problem today actually relates to the abuse of legal prescription drugs — not heroin and cocaine. Our objective should be to reduce the harm caused by all of them.

I believe that the most fundamental questions are not being asked. How, for example, did we ever think that the solution to curbing the use of certain drugs was to be found solely in the implementation of the criminal justice system? Why did we think it appropriate to criminalize people for ingesting substances that we disapprove of, even when there was no victim and no violence involved? We don’t incarcerate people who ingest excessive amounts of tobacco or alcohol, even though the potential harms are serious and quantifiable.

Well, you say, people use psychoactive drugs to get “high,” and somehow that is supposed to justify it. (People don’t use alcohol to get “high”?) Using this reasoning, we make a conscious choice every day to treat people who abuse certain substances as criminals, rather than as what they are, which is ill. How different would the scene be today if we had started a hundred years ago employing our public health system to deal with drug addiction instead?

Much is explained by the bigotry of the past, but by 2014 we should have advanced beyond these attitudes. It is clear to me that we have to begin by rejecting the rationale behind criminalization. It is essential that we stop considering drug users as “the other.” When we set up this kind of dichotomy, it becomes easy to justify harsh treatment of people whom we consider to be “lesser.” Yet far from being the demented, dangerous individuals that we seem to fear, drug users are our friends, neighbours and family members. It behooves us to treat them as we would want to be treated — with care, respect and compassion.

Root causes of drug use and addiction must be a part of this discussion. Our current prime minister thinks a consideration of root causes is an offence in itself — “committing sociology,” as he puts it. But we as a society need to put resources into identifying and alleviating these root causes.

Virtually every drug addict is dealing with some other issue — mental illness, dysfunction or violence in the home, the effects of colonialism, or just the pressure of a job. Instead of demonizing users, we could start by trying to deal with these issues, which I believe would have long-lasting positive effects.

We must also consider the negative effects that are directly caused by the criminalization of drugs. These have been enumerated: violence, disease, damage from incarceration, disruption of communities and families, the inability to ensure quality control of substances. Criminalization allows organized crime to control the illegal drug industry. Gangsters and bikers are not concerned with the common good or morals. They are concerned with only one thing: profits. In this, they are perfect models of corporatism.

How then do we justify the perpetuation of a system that enables organized crime to amass billions of dollars in profits, leaving dead bodies in its wake? Why would we support a system (and we are supporting it) that gives full responsibility over the sale and production of illegal drugs to criminal elements that are quite prepared to sell anything to anybody, including our children? Why do we tolerate the presence of gangsters who use drug money to influence and corrupt our judicial and political systems?

No one appears to be arguing that legalization would fail to remove organized crime from the illegal drug industry. Most opponents of legalization simply ignore the issue. Yet the pursuit of this outcome must be central to any discussion of the drug war. Of course, it is probable that a certain amount of black market activity would continue even after legalization — much like the smuggling of cigarettes that still occurs across the Canada-U.S. border. I would argue that if we can price the product right, gangsters will decide it is not worth their while to pursue the trade. Even if a residual amount of underground activity takes place, we will have broken the back of the illegal industry.

The evidence is overwhelming that drugs should be controlled and regulated by governments; that is, by the people. Governments already preside over the regulation of many addictive and potentially harmful drugs. After all, governments are elected to look after the common good, and they are supposed to have our best interests at heart. We entrust them with helping us care for our health and safety. When they fail in this, we have the opportunity to replace them.

Some feel legalization of drugs would lead to a “free-for-all.” Yet it should be clear by now that the current system is the free-for-all. When young people are asked how hard it is to obtain illegal drugs, they say it takes about ten minutes to buy just about anything they want. This cannot be what Canadians want, especially given the millions of dollars we spend on law enforcement and incarceration. The failure of 50 years of suppression demands a thoughtful and sensible search for alternative solutions.

It is disheartening in the extreme to watch Canada regressing in its approach to illegal drugs while the rest of the world moves on. Not only has our prison population increased by 16.5 per cent over the past decade, but the number of black inmates has increased by 75 per cent and the number of Native people by 45 per cent. Much of this increase is due to drug offences. What does this say about who we are as a people? We have been wholly unwilling or unable to prevent the entrenchment of a discredited and biased approach to controlling illegal drugs.

And this despite the fact that even the United States is showing signs of retreating from the tough-on-crime model by beginning the process of pardoning non-violent offenders who were unjustly sentenced to long prison terms for using drugs and ensuring no imprisonment for small-time users. The U.S. Attorney-General has even recognized the shocking disparity in the way drug laws have been applied to incarcerate disproportionate numbers of African-Americans and Latinos: “This over-reliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable. It comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”

Not only is Canada quickly falling behind the United States in this regard, but other countries we regard as “undeveloped” are also leaving us in the dust. We have much to learn from Evo Morales’s staunch defence of culture and tradition as he convinced the United Nations to allow his people to continue using coca. Unlikely jurisdictions like Kyrgyzstan and the Chinese province of Guizhou put us to shame by adopting more compassionate approaches. And José Mujica’s Uruguay is blazing a trail by legalizing marijuana, the first nation in the world to do so.

It is not expected that the sky will fall in Uruguay any more than it has in Colorado and Washington after legalization. Colorado has been dealing with a legal marijuana regime since January 1, 2014. Even though it’s early days, the state has reported no increase in crime or traffic accidents since the new regulations came into effect. In fact, there has been a spill-over tourist boom. Bakeries are reporting that business is up more than 1,000 per cent. One medical marijuana dispensary that used to make a thousand dollars a day is expecting to make one hundred times that much by autumn. And the state expects to reap double the estimated amount in taxes — something in the region of $150 million, the funds largely earmarked for building schools.

These are encouraging figures for those who have been advocating for marijuana legalization. However, we still face the obstacle of convincing the public that harder drugs deserve similar treatment. Indeed, I am convinced that those are the very drugs that most require control and regulation by responsible governments. The production and distribution of heroin and cocaine should not be left in the hands of criminals. For the sake of our own health and that of our neighbours, we need to take charge.

There remains a stubborn belief that harm reduction efforts such as safe injection sites somehow encourage more drug use. Yet the evidence shows the opposite: drug use tends to remain the same or decrease while health and mortality statistics improve. Switzerland’s heroin maintenance program is a good example. In twelve years (1990–2002), the number of new heroin users fell by 82 per cent, while the overall population of users was down four per cent. The number of injection drug users also dropped.

In Canada, our current government has made its choice. Harm reduction is out. Punishment for drug users is in. Offenders convicted of victimless, non-violent drug offences face mandatory minimum prison terms. The idea of providing prescribed maintenance doses of heroin to addicts is anathema. Needle exchanges are frowned upon. Small children are denied the medicine they need. Medical marijuana users in general are targeted in the push to punish drug users, as Health Canada says failure to comply with new rules will result in a visit from police.


A committed government, with the assistance of knowledgeable public health workers and scientific advice, will be more than capable of designing a legal and regulated regime that works both for the users and for the community at large. There are ample templates available from those with deep knowledge about the drugs in question. There is a wealth of information out there that we should exploit. We simply need the will to act.

Paula Mallea has degrees from Queen’s University in Canadian Literature (M.A.), Canadian History (M.A.) and Law (LL.B). She was called to the Bars of Upper Canada and Manitoba, and practiced criminal law for 15 years in Toronto, Kingston and Brandon. 

She is an executive member of the board of the national office of the CCPA, a life-long advocate of equality for women and author of several books.

Paula comes from Western Manitoulin Island in Ontario, and lives and writes there now.