Legalize or criminalize? Canada and the U.S. taking different paths on drug policy

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support today for as little as $1 per month!

Photo: E Wayne / flickr

Today, Canada and the U.S. are taking very different paths in drug policy, and not in the way you would probably expect.

In Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, citizens will be voting on ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana. In Canada, we are taking backward steps and are enacting mandatory minimum sentences for many drug offenses. 

As Canadians, we have often patted ourselves on the back for our rational and reasonable approach to the law. We pride ourselves on court systems that evaluate evidence in context to come to fair and just decisions. But rather than looking at the facts and evidence, our legislation is moving us backwards. By introducing mandatory minimum sentencing, not only do we prevent our judicial system from handing down appropriate sentences, but we will swell our prison population and dramatically increase the costs to taxpayers by billions.

Mandatory minimums are supposed to “protect our youth” from the dangers of organized crime, according the the RCMP’s Drug Enforcement Branch. But who are these laws really helping, and who are they harming?  Are they stopping the drug cartels, drug dealers, and terrorists? Are they limiting drug production and the importation of drugs? Are they reducing the number of young people from using substances? Are they making our communities safer? 

The RCMP state that the purpose of the Drug Enforcement Branch is to "prevent drug-related social harms by reducing the supply and demand for illicit drugs in Canada."  If that is truly their purpose, we are getting very bad value for our money. Currently, under a prohibition of drugs in Canada, we spend billions annually on enforcement, but see higher rates of use, higher purity drugs at lower cost, and less safe communities. 

The B.C. marijuana industry is estimated at $8 billion in untaxed revenue. By allowing an unregulated drug market, organized crime groups are left to reap profits and control this trade. Violent gangs fight for their place in the drug market, which often comes at unprecedented costs to both our communities and to the young people that are involved in these battles.

Over the past five years, we have seen the escalation of the gang war because of the illicit drug trade, with countless others being pulled into addiction. With addictions and the high cost of drugs, people are being forced into a life of crime which adds elements of property crime, and other acts of desperation for money.

Mandatory minimum sentencing criminalizes young people instead of supporting them to become active members of society. With these laws, young people, and particularly marginalized youth in Canada, will be cast aside and thrown into jail.

In this day and age of so much economic uncertainty, we need to create a system that provides educational opportunities and jobs for young people, and at the same time takes the incentive out of crime. By putting our youth into prison, we are entrenching them in a life of crime, instead than supporting them get out of it. 

Around the world people and their governments are seeing the value in helping rehabilitate young people who have committed crimes, rather than just throwing them in jail. Restorative justice programs, decriminalizing possession of small quantities of drugs, and prescribing drugs to people who are addicted are becoming common practice in many civil societies around the world. 

Given all the harms and little to no benefit of drug prohibition, this might be a time for Canadians to follow some of the reforms to drug laws taking place in the U.S.

First, we need to start having sensible, rational conversation about drugs and young people.

Second, we need to look at the full scope of harms that prohibition has done to our communities.

And finally, we need to stop throwing people in jail for possession of substances, and start making our communities safer with progressive, evidence-based drug policies and laws.

We need to stop prohibition.

Brad Olson is a member of Canadian Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (CCSDP-Vancouver), a student at UBC, and Social Worker in the Downtown East Side.

This article was originally published in the Georgia Straight and is reprinted here with permission. 

Further Reading

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.