Canada shows how we can save ourselves from the drug war

Canada legalised cannabis this week, but retained complex legal rules around its use
Canada legalised cannabis this week, but retained complex legal rules around its use

By Andrew Cowan

My 29-year-old son Daniel was an occasional user of recreational drugs. He died of an overdose two years ago.  Like many thousands of others, the drugs he took were illegally produced and supplied and his usage was entirely unsupervised and without any medical advice. The drugs he consumed on this occasion were also in all probability corrupted with potentially lethal ingredients.

I recently had a meeting with Theresa May in which I had the chance to raise the issue of keeping citizens safe in relation to drugs policy. The prime minister was keen to differentiate between ensuring safety for those taking drugs versus achieving - in her view - greater safety through pursuing policies resulting in their complete avoidance of drugs. She believes society should adopt the latter strategy.

Here's the problem. We have been following an avoidance strategy of 'just say no' for decades. Recreational drug manufacture, supply, distribution, possession and usage sit almost entirely outside the legal framework. Far from keeping citizens safe, this approach has led to a burgeoning illegal industry creating billionaire drug lords, a ruthless disregard for safety and a growing, appallingly-treated clientele outside any legal, regulated or safeguarded environment.


Efforts by law enforcement to curtail this activity have only led to the exponential enrichment of criminals, a swelling prison population, a continued sharp growth in the numbers of drug users and a spike in associated deaths caused by unsupervised usage, overdose and corrupted product.

Not only does the current policy not work, it is the actual active cause of deaths on a staggering scale. I believe, without hesitation, that my son would still be alive had there been an acceptance of drugs use and consequent policies and regulations in place which ensured his safety.

A safety-first strategy is practical and achievable. It would have, at its core, the basic acceptance that some people will always take drugs and therefore inevitably tend towards legal control and regulation. The contrary approach, which has at its core complete avoidance, is utopian in nature and doomed to fail. We have all watched it fail spectacularly for decades.

Thankfully the signs are that much of the world is changing its mind. Canada, which this week is legalising cannabis, is only the most recent society to adopt a new, tolerant, progressive and safety-first approach. This is not a free for all. It's about responsible governments taking control of manufacture, distribution and regulation, with sensible and pragmatic rules to mitigate against runaway usage. This is an important first step towards ending the drug war and we now need to adopt a health and safety approach towards those who use opiates and other illicit drugs.

Despite the prime minister's stated view during our discussion, a number of prominent public figures and bodies in the UK are coming round to this new way of thinking.

Daniel could have been anyone's child. I have hope that society is starting to care more for the safety of our children than in continuing the deadening insistence that all drug use is wrong. I've joined the Anyone's Child campaign which calls for this approach. I urge you to go and meet your MP today to call on them to prevent further deaths of people like my son.

Andrew Cowan was born and brought up in a mining community in Scotland where he met and married Margaret, his wife of 39 years. They have two surviving sons, Steven and Sam, following the death of their middle son Daniel in 2016.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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