Canada's Minister of State for Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa December 3, 2013. REUTERS/Chris Wattie (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS) - RTX162IW

Is Conservative Party leadership hopeful Pierre Poilievre wrong about drug decriminalization? On May 31, 2022, he tweeted,

“Decriminalizing deadly drug use is the opposite of compassionate. Those struggling with addiction need treatment & recovery. Drug dealers need strong policing & tough sentences.”

Ben Perrin, UBC law professor and author of Overdose: Heartbreak and Hope in Canada’s Opioid Crisis, responded quickly. He tweeted back,

“This is so disappointing. I used to think the same things, Pierre. Then I met with people in recovery and loved ones of people whose kids died of overdose. And I read the research. All of them said criminalizing people who use drugs made it worse. This isn’t a political issue.”

The Rationale Behind Pierre Poilievre’s View on Drug Decriminalization

Fans of Poilievre’s libertarian outlook on Canada are no doubt puzzled. How can Canada become “the freest nation on earth” if the federal government remains a gatekeeper on what we can put in our bodies? A little ironic (or hypocritical) for someone to oppose vaccine mandates and take a pro-choice stance based on the principles of self-ownership and bodily autonomy.

And then cast out all those principles based on an ideological view of drugs.

Even the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police wants the laws to change. They’ve called for treating substance use as a public health issue by decriminalizing simple possession. Precisely the thing B.C. just did. As Perrin put it, “[Poilievre] wants to criminalize things the police are saying Canadians should be allowed to do.”

Poilievre claims to be a fan of economist Milton Friedman when he was on Jordan Peterson’s podcast. The 43-year-old articulated why free markets work better than taxation and bureaucracy. 

But it seems that Poilievre picks and chooses what part of Friedman’s work he likes. Milton Freidman once said, “If you look at the drug war from a purely economic point of view, the role of the government is to protect the drug cartel. That’s literally true.”

So what’s going on? Is Poilievre playing to his social conservative base? Will he take a more libertarian position if (or when) he becomes Conservative leader?

Or is the problem more insidious? Instead of asking, “why are conservatives like this?” we should be asking about our biases. Is addiction a “public health issue?”

Many of us are still carrying baggage from decades of drug war propaganda. And it’s seen in both Poilievre and Perrin’s tweets. There’s an implicit bias whenever we discuss drugs. And it is an entirely unscientific bias.

Drugs Don’t Harm People. 

Is Pierre Poilievre Wrong about Drug Decriminalization?

Poilievre said: “Those struggling with addiction need treatment & recovery.”

Proponents of drugs and prohibitionists are operating in the same paradigm. This is where addiction experts and Poilievre agree. And this is where both sides still fall victim to drug war propaganda.

Drugs don’t harm people any more than guns do. Guns are an approximate cause of death; the ultimate cause is the person pulling the trigger. Similar to hard drugs like opioids. An opioid may be what kills the brain and body, but the ultimate cause is the mind choosing to partake.

But isn’t the whole point of addiction? People aren’t choosing? Doesn’t the word “addiction” imply that the person isn’t making a choice?

Clinical psychologist Reaume Carrol Mulry, Ph.D., would likely disagree. As would Stanton Peele, Ph.D., and Peter Venturelli, Ph.D.

And so would former problem-drinkers Mark Scheeren and Michelle Dunbar and former heroin user Steven Slate. 

These people represent a small but growing community of former substance abusers and medical professionals—people who are skeptical that the concept of addiction and recovery does anything but harm.

Addiction is a Myth

Is Pierre Poilievre Wrong about Drug Decriminalization?

Pierre Poilievre’s belief in drugs and addiction isn’t so far from the so-called “addiction experts” criticizing him.

Addiction is the belief that outside forces – like THC, according to the government – have the power to enslave people. But even with something harder, like alcohol or heroin – how are people being forced to do things they don’t want to do?

British Columbia decriminalized opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA. Do any of these drugs have an innate power of control? 

How exactly does an individual become powerless over the overwhelming “allure” of these substances?

Alcohol, for example, is lifeless. It’s just a liquid. It can’t force you to drink it. You are not a meat puppet directed by cosmic forces; everyone has an autonomous mind that chooses. 

Now, human beings are habitual creatures. But to confuse ingrained habits with a myth called addiction is nonsense. And harmful.

Would the drug war have been launched if people’s concepts of drugs differed? That drugs weren’t “addictive” but merely habit-forming? Chocolate cake can be habit-forming. Even healthy activities like running are habit-forming.

“Addiction” is a made-up construct that requires “recovery.” Depending on the drug, some users need medical detox, but beyond that, there is no life-long recovery. People aren’t born addicts. There is no such thing as an “addictive personality.”

The belief in addiction feeds the notion that you cannot choose to stop or moderate your behaviour. It’s a self-defeating proposition. It’s drug war propaganda, pure and simple. This belief in addiction denies you your self-ownership by constructing a bogeyman.

Governments and public health busy-bodies love this kind of narrative. It subjects the individual to exterior forces outside of their control. It says, “some of your actions are involuntary; therefore, we’ll step in and direct your life for your own good.” 

In reality, the choice to take substances is like the choice to do anything. It’s a preference. Many people have a preference to escape the confines of their own minds. Cannabis is the safest alternative, but for whatever reason, prefer a different type of buzz. Even if it means significant health risks.

Pierre Poilievre Has Nothing to Fear About Drug Decriminalization

Pierre Poilievre has nothing to fear about drug decriminalization except the continuing drug war propaganda pushed by so-called public health and addiction experts. 

Suppose Poilievre wants to set himself apart from others in the traditional left-right spectrum. Suppose he wants to remove the conversation gatekeepers surrounding drugs and their dangers. In that case, he can start by sounding less like Stephen Harper and more like Steven Slate.

Slate is the lead author of The Freedom Model for Addictions: Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap. He’s also a former heroin and cocaine “addict.”

“The disease model of addiction, and other ideologies of compulsion only take the focus off the fact that we are doing what we want to do, and that we have the power to change. In my book, I argue against those models, and for a realistic view of the powers of substances, so that people may approach this as choice, and be happy to make a change, rather than waging an endless tiring battle (“recovery”) against a bogeyman – the fictitious entity called addiction.”

If Poilievre is serious about making Canada the freest nation on earth, he must expand his horizons. He can start by reading Slate’s book.

Canadians don’t need the government gatekeeping what they can or can’t put in their body. And they don’t need public health and “addiction experts” doing the same thing.