The Current

Drug controls are 'absolutely pathetic,' activist says regulation will save lives

Don MacPherson has worked for decades to fix what he sees as a broken system. The solution he says is legalizing and regulating illicit drugs.
Activist Donald MacPherson believes there's no other way to reduce the number of people dying of drug overdoses other than decriminalizing and regulating illegal drugs. (Canadian Drug Policy Coalition)

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A Vancouver based drug policy researcher has been working for decades to get the federal government to regulate illegal drugs like heroin and cocaine.

Don MacPherson authored the groundbreaking Four Pillars Approach to Drug Problems in Vancouver in 2001 — calling for this kind of regulation. 

Now, 16 years later, and in the midst of a year-long public health emergency in B.C. centred around overdose deaths, MacPherson continues to try to convince politicians that this is the only way out of the overdose crisis.

"It's clear that every thing we are doing is not working," MacPherson tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. "It's absolutely pathetic that we can not move beyond this paradigm that we have supported for so many years and at the cost of so many lives."

What's stopping us from actually moving towards a better system?- Don MacPherson

Drugs controls fail to control drugs

Ideally, he wants the federal government to review drug prohibition "and see if we can come up with a better system for controlling drugs."

MacPherson, who is now executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, says that many of our drug policies were crafted 50 years ago and that while we have made great strides in making new policy on important social issues like same-sex marriage and assisted suicide, we have not moved forward on the drug policy front.

He says the cost of not making changes to update and modernize our drug laws has cost thousands of citizens across the country their lives. 

"As a society we regulate most things," he says.

"We regulate property ... the height of counter tops and alcohol and tobacco. Why we haven't chosen to do that with these other small categories of drugs is a question that has bothered me since I got involved in this field. What's stopping us from actually moving towards a better system?"

The irony of our drug control strategies is that they don't control drugs."- Don MacPherson

Drug control strategies don't work

Not only is the system lacking, according to MacPherson, it is doing the opposite of controlling drugs. 

"The irony of our drug control strategies is that they don't control drugs," he says.

"They actually create a free market for these substances and the free market is managed by organized criminal gangs with a global reach."

MacPherson says it is unconscionable for our society to allow this to continue. He says that the public health community is united in calling for a public health approach to drugs yet policy continues to be based on a model of prohibition — and as long as it is, organized crime will be the main player in the lives of addicts and occasional users of these drugs.

Have we reached the end of the road? MacPherson believes we have and that the government must  impose a regulatory framework around illegal drugs.

"We are doing it with cannabis, and maybe we need to take one drug at a time until we've regulated them all."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by Vancouver network producer Anne Penman.