By Graham Duggan

In the CBC Docs POV documentary Prison Pump, we meet  Jose Alejandro Vivar, an ex-gangster who spent eight-and-a-half years in prison.

Vivar was once an influential Toronto gang leader and involved in the city’s drug trade, and he’s seen a lot of violence. “It went from fist fights to baseball bats, to chains, to dogs, then guns,” said Vivar. Gun violence in Toronto spiked this summer, with more than 200 shootings in the city so far in 2018, 24 of them fatal.

John Struthers, one of Canada’s top criminal defence lawyers (who once represented Vivar) is not surprised. He believes a solution could lie in an idea that’s been gaining momentum around the world: Legalize all drugs.

War on drugs is causing more violence

Law enforcement agencies across North America have shut down some large gangs in the drug trade, but this creates a power vacuum, leading to more turf wars and violence.

He says that it’s a war we cannot win — drug use will never stop. As long as there are users, there will always be a supply and there will always be suppliers: gangs. 

Legalizing the supply would take drugs away from the gangs, cutting off their income source. “Gangs aren’t fighting over drugs, they are fighting over money,” says Struthers. “Al Capone wasn’t killing people over beer during prohibition; he was killing people over money.” It’s the same with today’s gangs — with a demand for drugs, there are billions to be made.

And he believes there’s another benefit to legalization. “By bringing the drugs out of the shadows, we can move towards getting help for those with addictions. It doesn’t require a judicial approach; it requires a public health approach.”

Struthers has seen first-hand how the current justice system is punishing people with addictions who need help. By legalizing and regulating drugs, the government will be able to control the supply and users will know the drugs they are taking are safe. This approach could have prevented the 4,000 deaths from opioids in 2017 alone.

Legalization of marijuana in Canada

With the legalization of marijuana across Canada in 2018, Struthers hopes that the “gateway drug” could inevitably become the gateway to drug reform. 

While progress towards the decriminalization of all drugs depends on Canada’s political landscape, some jurisdictions are getting on board. In response to the opioid crisis, the Toronto Public Health agency recently submitted an official recommendation to the federal government for decriminalizing all drugs for personal use, and Montreal backed the idea recommendation. 

Vancouver is at the epicentre of the opioid epidemic with nearly 1,500 deaths last year. The city is also calling for decriminalization, with many of the city’s citizens rallying in support, and Vancouver’s mayor long calling for legalization, saying “urgent, disruptive measures” are needed.

Despite this and support from the federal NDP party, the current Liberal government says it has no interest in legalizing any drugs beyond marijuana.

Struthers is still hopeful for reform and hopes to one day see a new and more effective approach to drug control in Canada. He asks, “who would you rather have managing the drug supply? A regulated institution that can guarantee a safe product and offer help to those with addiction, or gangs with guns?”