Note: This interview has been edited for clarity, readability, and concision.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How’d you get interested and involved in Canadian drug policy?
Dr. Tara Marie Watson: I have longstanding interests in drug policy in general. I started becoming interested as a graduate student at the Master’s level. I took graduate-level courses, which opened a new personal perspective on drug issues.
Previously, I adopted a psychological lens through which to view drug issues. I took courses that were more about the sociology of drug-related problems. These courses opened up new personal perspectives.
I learned about a number of converging factors, including socio-cultural elements, that form part of drug-related issues and policies. At that point, I became interested in learning more about drug policy – its design, politics, and ways it’s debated. I then did a Ph.D. in criminology.
I have also been involved in the coordination of public health research related to harm reduction. Canada has been a jurisdiction of interest, not only because of living here, but Canada has seen interesting ups-and-downs and stagnation with regards to drug policy.
Jacobsen: In general, there are two streams of thought. Philosophies as theories. Strategies as practice. There’s a punitive or punishment approach called zero tolerance. There’s another called harm reduction. Briefly, you noted expertise in harm reduction. What is the preferable strategy, and why?
Watson: As well, there is a wide spectrum. You have correctly identified two sort of opposite ends of the spectrum. One being punitive, and zero tolerance. The other being harm reduction. There’s a lot that can fall in between these two approaches, including policies and strategies also referred to as harm reduction.
These strategies vary as to the level of meeting people ‘where they’re at’ in terms of their drug use. Some strategies are coercive. Some are harm reduction-oriented. I want to make that clarification. I am on the harm-reduction end of the spectrum. Punitive, zero-tolerance, and law enforcement-oriented approaches to drug use have been abject failures.
Evidence from criminology and sociology associated with the war on drugs document the failures in Canada, the US, and other countries following prohibitionist logic over many decades. Punitive approaches towards drugs do not reduce levels of drug use. These approaches don’t deter people from trying or experimenting with different substances. They don’t reduce drug-related crime. In particular, they discriminate against segments of the population that are typically marginalized in some way.
For example, people experiencing poverty, homelessness, histories of trauma, and so on. These experiences are important factors in the lives of some people who use drugs. By arresting, charging, and throwing people in jail for crimes like drug possession, we have done nothing to reduce the stigma and discrimination in their lives. We’ve done little to mitigate the health-related problems associated with drug use. Prisons are, in particular, known to be challenging places to offer treatment for drug use.
Jacobsen: To make things explicit, you mentioned “segments of the population.” What are the segments of the population? What are the most damaging effects of bad drug policy?
Watson: People who have had experiences with significant amounts of discrimination and social marginalization in life often exhibit heavier, more sustained, and problematic forms of drug use. This includes people who are members of racial and ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, and those coming from families with ongoing and sustained problematic substance use, as well as histories of trauma.
These groups can be predisposed to more serious forms of drug use such as dependence and addiction. They find themselves more likely to be in conflict with the law compared to more “mainstream” people who may use drugs because of, for example, living on the street and having had many experiences of discrimination. They don’t have as many resources or means of protection when they obtain drugs. In terms of the damaging effects of overly punitive and zero-tolerance drug laws, there are multiple. These effects include ongoing stigmatization and marginalization of the aforementioned groups. Again, these groups tend to be disproportionately affected by drug laws. It is due in part to the discretion in place of drug enforcement by the police. We know of many issues around this in the criminal justice system.
One of the other effects, in the US especially, is the enforcement of drug laws having resulted in massive incarceration and a prison-industrial complex. There is much sociological research to support this, and some key documentaries explain this phenomenon, such as The House I Live In, too.
The health effects are very damaging. People on the street experiencing homelessness and poverty and involved in taking drugs have to conceal drug use from the authorities. This leads to myriad health-related harms. Everything from having to conceal themselves to take drugs in clandestine locations such as alleyways. They have to throw away drugs and drug-use equipment out of fear. They don’t want to get caught or have their equipment confiscated by police.
One remedy to some of these issues is harm reduction strategies and programs. They can be successful and are in place in Canada, to a degree.
Jacobsen: One of the more important subjects of drug policy comes in the form of volunteering. This comes from three areas. One, that means from those out of high school and with more freedom in undergraduate studies.
Two, those starting the first major research projects, honours theses and Masters theses. Three, those becoming professionals through doctorate level and having expert-level opinions on the subject matter. Any advice for those three demographics?
Watson: That’s an interesting question. I wasn’t expecting one like it. Those with an interest in drug policy should seek out resources. There should be more resources on campuses across Canada. For example, groups like the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy are really important. These groups need to get the word out through campus and social media outreach. It can help reach the students that have interest and don’t know where to look. At the high school and undergraduate levels, you don’t get much tailored, drug-policy education.
I find that people need to be self-interested. Those grassroots, community, and student-oriented groups are really important to get students engaged in Canadian drug policy reform. For those starting at the early levels of research, there needs to be programs on campus that engage students at all levels. That includes graduate students and faculty. There needs to be a place to learn more and get involved. Here at the University of Toronto, there’s a Collaborative Program in Addiction Studies. It offers multi-disciplinary courses on drug-related issues.
Drug policy is just one aspect of this program; it is a program for those who have general interests in drug-related issues at the University of Toronto. There should be efforts to broaden those types of academic programs and have the advocacy piece to coincide with it.
For those early-career professionals, it is important to stay engaged on social media and seek out different opportunities to become involved in drug policy issues. I do this. For example, I know about and have reached out to the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and campaigns like Support, Don’t Punish. When I see such groups or campaigns, I sign up for newsletters and email lists. I visit the websites to acquire more information. I want to stay involved in the latest news regarding harm reduction in Canada, in particular. I think it’s a good thing to be a part of these groups.
Jacobsen: How can professional academics mentor younger generations?
Watson: It is wonderful for people to seek out such mentorship. There can be more done. Drug policy experts can come to events and speak to students and other people interested in these issues. Groups like the CSSDP do a great job reaching out to speak to experts. It’s like what you’re doing right now. Drug policy experts tend to congregate together and speak to one another. That is great. However, there needs to be more cross-dialogues with other stakeholders who are interested and want to get involved in drug policy.
That includes law enforcement agents and social workers and teachers. You sometimes don’t see these individuals come to certain drug policy events. So, thinking beyond mentorship, there needs to be more outreach to get experts in drug policy speaking to different groups. How do you best do this? That’s a pressing question.
Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Dr. Watson.