Episode 20 It’ll take more than hard drug decriminalization to beat the overdose crisis

Interviewer: Hi I’m Yves Faguy. In this episode of Modern Law, we discuss BC’s decriminalization response to the drug crisis.

Podcast Intro: You’re listening to Modern Law, presented by the Canadian Bar Association’s National Magazine.

Yves Faguy: Welcome to today’s episode. We recorded this on February 13th, 2023, still in the very early stages of a ground-breaking change in drug policy in British Columbia. All part of a three-year pilot to no longer charge adults with up to two and a half grams of drugs for personal use. And that includes opioids, like fentanyl, cocaine, and MDMA, methamphetamines. Now some people call this an experiment. A bit pejoratively, perhaps in some cases. But then again, the war on drugs was a huge experiment that was neither grounded in science, health, compassion, or some are now arguing in the Courts, in human rights.

Regardless, this BC experiment required buy-in from the federal government. And last May, the Federal Health Minister granted BC an exemption, under Section 56 of the Controlled Drug and Substances Act. The sale of trafficking in drugs is still illegal in BC and will be subject to criminal prosecution. But the goal of the pilot is to reduce the stigma and harm caused by drug use. What’s less certain is whether it will succeed in giving those drug users access to the resources or the safe supply they need to overcome addiction. So that hopefully, greater numbers could return to becoming functional in their lives.

It’s that last point, that my guest today is trying to make. My guest today is Rob Laurie. And he’s here to walk us through the challenges ahead for governments in making this pilot succeed. He’s an international lawyer qualified in England and called to the British Columbia Bar, Rob has spent the better part of his career working to reform drug laws. Specifically to improve medical patient access to cannabis, psychedelics, and Sacred Plant Medicines, so that doctors can provide treatments for anxiety, depression, addiction and PTSD. He founded Ad Lucem Law Corporation in Vancouver, in 2013. His legal practice focuses on Corporate, Commercial and Administrative Law, Licensing, Regulatory and Constitutional Charter issues concerning medical access to cannabis and psychedelics.

Welcome to the show Rob Laurie. Thanks for coming.

Rob Laurie: Hey, thank you for having me. It’s a real honour and a privilege to be part of the broadcast.

Yves Faguy: Let’s start by getting to know you a little bit. What is it that you do? And how did you get here?

Rob Laurie: Well I’m a lawyer. I became a lawyer in England, I qualified as a Solicitor to the Supreme Court of England and Whales after my law schooling at Oxford. And practiced in England for about four years after two years of articles. And then came home, re-qualified and was called to the BC Bar as a Barrister Solicitor, in August of 2011. And I guess, as part of that requalification process, I was required by the National Committee on Accreditation to write a series of exams. And a – well four exams, and let’s see, there was Administrative Law, and Constitutional Charter Law, which I was thinking, when the heck am I ever going to use this in my career as a corporate finance lawyer, which is sort of how I started.

However – you know I also – well grew up in the cCannabis space. We could talk about that as well. But my younger brother’s best friend was effectively Seth Rogan’s supplier, if you will, for seven and a half years, back in the 90s. So that, coupled with being ADHD, I was one of the youngest diagnosed cases in 1980, I was age four, diagnosed as ADHD and slight – and then, you know, on Ritalin shortly thereafter. So I guess – how did I end up here, as a cannabis, psychedelics, Regulatory, Constitutional, Administrative, Criminal lawyer, is effectively down to the fact that – well, growing up, I had more drugs than hot dinners. And the narrative surrounding the access and use of this as medicine, was very much a collaborative discussion between my parents, family doctor and teachers.

Which, compared to how and witnessing how things are done, or have been done traditionally, with respect to other medicine, such as cannabis. I mean the experience has been night and day. I mean, when I was six, living in Texas, no one said anything about, oh the developing brain of a six year old on weapons-grade methamphetamine – no one said anything, they just recognized that, for whatever reason, my brain was producing a surplus of some things and a deficit of others, and accessed to Ritalin made the difference – at least in my case, between either being, you know, a taught functioning, productive member of the class, or the Tasmanian devil.

So really, there was no grey area with drugs and medicines growing up. These were viewed as something that, you know, help people and if used correctly, are the difference between, you know, a productive successful life, or the diametric opposite. So to sum up, yeah, I feel I’m a voice for those that don’t have one, when it comes to reasonable, dignified patient access of medicine, and I’ve been, yeah, very involved in the fight for the legalization of access to cannabis. And more recently, in the area of access to psychedelic therapy. So yeah, I run my own practice now, Ad Lucem Law Corporation, based in Vancouver. But I’ve been doing cases throughout Canada and consultancy work internationally.

Yves Faguy: So none of this was pre-ordained except that, when you look back on your life, it all makes sense.

Rob Laurie: Exactly. I mean, up until a few years ago, all this diverse experience, like Securities Fraud litigation experience, cannabis – I used to structure off-shore hedge-funds for a leading international hedge-fund practice. Prior to that, I was working for Sullivan and Cromwell, which, traditionally is regarded as the CIA’s law firm on Wall Street. So very unique, and varied experience, and I – and it’s really been, I think – cannabis and, you know, psychedelics has enabled me to sort of encompass a number of practice areas and experiences and really bring them in together. So what was a nightmare for recruiters, probably ten to 14 years ago, now isn’t too hard to place me, or utilize me in unique and interesting scenarios involving, you know, cannabis, psychedelics, Regulatory issues, and of course, all of the Securities Fraud and other issues that we’re seeing.

So I don’t know, I just – I guess the key is, is if you follow your passions and do work that interests you, as opposed to what appeases a partnership board, it leads to, I think a lot more fulfillment and satisfaction. But when it comes practicing law, and getting up everyday and doing things that are unique and authentic.

Yves Faguy: That’s a great introduction to who you are and what you do. Let’s attack the topic of today’s discussion a little bit, which, you know, I mean to try and frame things a little bit. I think really what we’re talking about here today, more broadly, is drug policy. There’re a lot of extraordinary things going on, it seems, in this country, but in other jurisdictions around the world as well. I have people asking me, like how the hell is it that illegal mushroom stores are popping up and staying open in Canada? Do you have an answer to that?

Rob Laurie: Well no pun intended, popping up like mushrooms. So a little other fact about me. At one point in time, I represented probably 40 percent of the unlicensed cannabis dispensaries in British Columbia, from about 2015 onwards, when the City of Vancouver made the decision to – if you will, regulate medicinal cannabis dispensaries, which, under the Constitutional division of powers, that is not a area for municipal governments. But the City of Vancouver did it anyway. And my theory is, is that they weren’t planning to regulate dispensaries at all. This was an elimination, or an irregulation policy guised as an elimination – or an elimination strategy guised as a regulatory policy.

Because look, out of 150-plus dispensaries, that were operating in Vancouver, at or around January 2015, the city decided to introduce land zoning and buffering of 300 meters, which of 150-plus dispensaries, 13 were eligible. So at the end of the day, no other business would be regulated in the name of public health and public safety by eliminating effectively 80 percent of the businesses. So my theory really was that, the City of Vancouver did this, as a means of trying to shut down a proliferating problem.

So that leads – fast forward to now, 2023 and we’re about, by my estimates, about 10 or so illegal stores – well they’re not illegal, they’re licensed to sell either novelty, novelty licensing, or food. Food mushrooms, right? And really, the city, I think knows the problem is there, but they’re reluctant to deal with it, because, one, they know that the VPD are not going to address the issue. They’ve made it very clear that psilocybin, psilocin mushrooms are not a big deal for them, considering the larger public health and safety, and violent crimes they’re dealing with. So it’s kind of a catch 22. So really, the city, I think, is quietly allowing these stores to pop up, like mushrooms, right? One here, one there, and sooner or later, you see one or two, you’ll see all of them.

But I think what they’re doing is they’re waiting to hit a certain population capacity, right? Because it doesn’t make sense to go to court and get a ruling now if there’s five or 10 stores. They don’t have a problem yet. But if it gets, to I imagine, 50-plus, or something like that, then the City of Vancouver – unlike the dispensary days, will be able to go to court, and I don’t think it’ll take two and half years to get an injunction. I mean that’s what the Case Law, City of Vancouver versus Karuna Health, and others, which was, you know, effectually known as the Dispensary Test Case. Effectively, the City of Vancouver does have land use powers, that they could shut these stores down yesterday, if they wanted to. But they’re not. So you know, it – again, they didn’t shut down when there were 15 cannabis dispensaries. So I think they’re going to let the problem I guess, proliferate a little further, until they can demonstrate that there’s public health and public safety.

Because let’s not forget that the initial first 10 to 15 of the cannabis medicinal dispensaries – I mean they were doing good work. They effectively were providing access to – and providing services that the government couldn’t or wouldn’t provide. So we have to give credit to some of these early pioneers and mavericks that without them, I don’t think we would’ve had legalization and we certain – wouldn’t have had a robust litany of litigation to get us to where we are now with medical access.

Yves Faguy: So what is that service that government couldn’t or should be providing?

Rob Laurie: Well we’ll certainly get to that into the context of BC’s decision to decriminalize drugs. And, well the answer that these businesses, cannabis businesses, safe injection sites, really go to the heart of public health and public safety. But they – the government has not addressed the issue of safe supply. So I reached out to a friend and mentor of mine, John Conroy, QC, who has been involved in much of the litany of litigation cannabis cases. But he’s been legal council to VANDU, that’s the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. And he says, without access to safe supply and that’s really what the heart of this is, is that there is an absence of safe supply and that these quote, unquote illegal, or unregulated businesses that are popping up are, at least, providing some supply.

And I mean, really, this is what the heart of why the government claims to do this, is they don’t want to legalize drugs, but they want to – and they have, effective July 31st, 2023, is they have decriminalized, to amounts of 2.5 grams, or less, of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamines, and MDMA. And these – this is effectively done to alleviate or negate the stigma, which is traditionally attracted, or has attracted to drug use. In fact, in 2022, it was recorded that there were 2,300 British Columbians that died from toxic drug supply. And you know, this – the coroner has indicated that this is roughly about six people per day, have died from drug deaths related to the use of this.

The beauty of the – this decriminalization, which ultimately is a Section 56 exemption, it’s a Ministerial Exemption that the province of British Columbia has applied for to the Federal Government. Which effectively exempts these substances from the regular enforcement that would apply under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

Yves Faguy: And that amount is 2.5 grams?

Rob Laurie: 2.5 grams.

Yves Faguy: How did we land on 2.5 grams?

Rob Laurie: Well I asked Mark Haden this question. And Mark’s the Former Executive Director of MAPS Canada, and a Associate Professor of Population Studies, at UBC. And it was effectively federal government had shown a tepid approach of approving 2.5 grams is for possession. The BC government submission to the federal government asked for 4.5 grams, while the Canadian Association of Police Chiefs called for decriminalization of one gram or less. And so really, this was Health Canada trying to appease stakeholders with very you know, polar approaches. But it’s interesting, you know, just before we get into it, I mean when you look at, let’s see, 2.5 grams, I did some calculations.

In the case of MDMA, a typical does of MDMA is about 100 to 125 milligrams. So if we assume a dose of 100 milligrams per use, 2.5 grams of MDMA could potentially be divided into 25 doses. Cocaine, for example, if we’re talking powder, 2.5 grams, and if we’re looking at a dose around 30 to 50 milligrams, well 2.5 grams of cocaine would roughly be 62.5 doses. But if we look at crack. Crack, if we’re looking at a rock, which is around point one to zero point five grams in weight, if we assume of rock of 2.5 grams – or 2.2 grams, then 2.5 grams of crack cocaine would work out to, roughly 12.5 individual rocks. So – and opioids, let’s see here. Yeah – this I thought this was interesting, 2.5 grams, if we look at an average dose of oxycodone or hydrocodone, doses are arranged from about five to 30 milligrams. So 2.5 grams would roughly work out to 166 individual doses.

Yves Faguy: It’s a pretty blunt instrument.

Rob Laurie: Well acid, we’ll leave it on acid. So acid’s typically measured in micrograms. So yeah, acid – a typical dose is 50 to 150 micrograms. And they use micrograms rather than grams. So in the case of assuming an average does of acid is 100 micrograms, that would be approximately 25,000 individual doses of 2.5 grams of pure LSD. So does this make sense? Let’s discuss it further.

Yves Faguy: Well I mean, does it make sense, to you?

Rob Laurie: Well in the case of methamphetamines, like okay, I’m a – I use Ritalin. I’m on, let’s see, 220 mg tablets in the morning, and two 20 mg tablets in the afternoon. Okay? I’m 6 foot 4, at about 240 pounds, so I’m a big guy, and I’ve been using Ritalin from the age of four. So it’s obvious – clear to say that my body has built up a tolerance and a resistance. But for a meth user, it says that the typical dose is 20 to 60 milligrams, okay? I’m still above that, as a diagnosed ADHD, but what that works out to, is 2.5 grams of methamphetamine. Now that can be divided into 62.5 individual doses. So again, does that make sense?

Well, it may, if there’s a safe supply, but what I think is overlooked in a lot of this, is Vancouver police were not really arresting people for small amounts in the first place. Two point five grams, I sort of see it as a arbitrary amount, but now gives police certain stop and check powers that they might not have had before. And you think about it. As a lawyer, we’re always advising clients that on arrest or on questioning, from persons in authority, which could be a police officer, a customs agent, a department of fisheries officer, a boarder agent, et cetera, police – those are statements to persons in authority. So if a police is now doing a spot check, are you advised to talk to the police? To start showing them what you’ve got?

And on another note, how are police even going to really enforce this? Because I’ve been instructed that they’re not going to go around with scales. They’re going to effectively use like photographic representations to illustrate what 2.5 grams of these substances look like, which, at the end of the day, how are the police going to know that that’s crack cocaine and not, you know, rock candy, for example? Without testing and analysis, that could again, unduly involve people in the criminal justice system and tie in dollars, investigative powers, which maybe better used elsewhere.

Yves Faguy: What’s the goal here? Like what – why are we moving ahead with this in a sort of random, kind of 2.5 grams is going to be the marker for all these drugs that carry different weights, from one another? What’s the goal of decriminalization? What’s the immediate goal?

Rob Laurie: Thank you. Yeah, good question. So the goal, as it’s been stated by the government and the literature I’ve read, is that it’s to reduce shame and stigma surrounding drug use, which the province says, keeps people from accessing life-saving services. Which I think is a copout answer because, you know, let’s just look at get – you know, trying to retain a psychiatrist for mental health. I mean, if you have means and you have money, it’s going to take you six months to a year, just on the supply of trying to just see a psychiatrist for, you know, regular, routine mental health.

Now that’s people with means. Those without, I mean, where are they supposed to go, right? And there’s the absence of all that. And let’s also not forget that, you know, for over 100 years now, you know, going back to, at least the 20s, we’ve been dealing with this drug war. Prohibition, you know, it started with opium, cannabis and other substances, in the 20s, and then by 1971, you had the Nixon administration declaring acid and other psychedelics for the first time in history, as anti-social. So in 1971 with the invocation of the UN Convention on psychotropic substances, you know, we’ve had prohibition since the 70s.

So what this BC decriminalization really gets at is, it’s a victory. It’s a victory in mindset, from going from a slam door of prohibition and government saying, no, there’s no medical validity and utility of these medicines to decriminalizing them. Which, again I think is a lot of lip service without addressing, well why did Canadian Government follow, to some extent, these international commitments? And how is it taking them so long to realize that this approach has been a absolute failure? So it’s a monumental victory in terms of how government has traditionally looked at drug use and prohibition. And in that capacity, it’s huge but it really doesn’t go anywhere near enough to truly address the problem. And the government has three years, under this exemption, which is an experiment at the end of the day, to really see how these numbers will pan out.

Will it save lives? Will it get people off drugs? Will it compound drug problems? Does it send a message to minors, for example, that drug use is okay and 2.5 grams of cocaine is no big deal, right? Again, it’s a monumental shift though, from certainly the era and attitude that I grew up in. I mean, I can remember back to living in Texas, in 1984, when part of the whole just say no. You had police in cowboy hats and guns coming to the elementary school basically explaining just say no and there, and that all these drugs are bad, and ultimately, yeah, it’s – we’re in different times.

Yves Faguy: Well – and you know, I think there’s – I think there’s a distinction. I think nobody’s saying that all drugs are good, although there are some discussions around the use of certain psychedelic drugs that could have curative effects. There might be some other examples out there.

Rob Laurie: But why didn’t they include say, psilocybin, which, you know, we’ve had psilocybin since 2022, there has been medical therapeutic access. There is tons of international study and there’s been a lot of clinical on this. And would that proliferation of mushroom stores, brick and mortar stores in Vancouver, plus the availability online, there is no shortage. That was interesting that, you know, that was left off and MDMA, for example, was included.

Yves Faguy: So what should the goals and values of a drug policy be in this country?

Rob Laurie: That’s a great question. Well really, the goals of drug policy should prioritize public health and safety with harm reductions and evidence-based approaches, to actual, like drug use and addiction. And the values that I think, should guide this process, and we’re starting to see this, in the, you know, in this decriminalization movement, is that, you know, there should be compassion, empathy, respect for human rights and a commitment to social justice. Which, in the context of the drug war discussion, there was none of this. It was drugs are bad, that’s it, that’s all. Zero sum, and it still accounts for why there is not a very robust, industrial hemp industry in the United States, because that’s been by design.

And in additionally, drug policy should be designed with a focus on reducing systematic inequalities and addressing root causes of drug-related issues. And that would include, you know, poverty, marginalization and social exclusion, which, you know, you apply that into the context of the downtown East side in Vancouver, and some of the critics would argue that, you know, perhaps some of these policies have gone too far the other way, that they disproportionately also affect other facets of society, with regards to public safety, property damage and other externalities that have been caused by the liberalization of drug use.

I mean, just take Hastings Street, in Vancouver, I mean, what was kind of Pender and [Carol] when I was a kid, where you know, sort of the real druggy area of Vancouver, but that whole area now has exploded up and down East Hastings, to where, effectively you have drug encampments now. And arguably those drug encampments are greater health and safety issues than have, would have been, you know the issues of safe injection and access to clean supply.

Yves Faguy: I think that’s an important point, because, here we are, we’re introducing this, you know, you call it an experiment, some people would dispute it’s an experiment, they say, you know, based in certain amount of policy research and what not. But let’s call it an experiment for now. I think there’re a lot of raw reactions to the decriminalization of all these drugs, under 2.5 grams. And we have a voting public, we elect politicians. There’s going to be a federal election at some point –

Rob Laurie: Can’t come soon enough.

Yves Faguy: – I wonder, how do we kind of proof these experiments against political volitivity? Because there are obviously people who are going to have issues with the public safety component to this, and you know, quite frankly, you know people invest in property, and they don’t want – you know, public safety can mean anything from violent drug offenders to someone messing up a park, for example. People still don’t like to see that, across the street from where they live.

Rob Laurie: Not in my backyard, as George Carlin would call it.

Yves Faguy: Yeah, it’s NIMBY-ism if you like, and so how do we build consensus around the goals of a new drug policy?

Rob Laurie: The very loaded and great question. How – like how do we do this?

Yves Faguy: Well how do we do this, like – politically, it seems to me, is the hardest. Agreeing politically on how to address drug policy, or devise a new drug policy, it strikes me as one of the most difficult things to do. When you go right versus left, law and order versus compassion, if you want. How do we go about building a consensus?

Rob Laurie: Yeah, no I think – effectively, harm reduction has – there has to be harm reduction, one way or another. I mean, it’s unacceptable that people are dying because they can’t access services and clean medicine. So I think everyone can agree that we need to figure out strategies that reduce harm. Access to treatment and support services, I think everyone can agree that, you know, just making drugs decriminalized doesn’t go far enough. In fact – effectively I see it in some instances like giving someone with arrested development, a loaded handgun and expecting to make good decisions, right? And there is, in some degree, there is a responsibility of the state to step in, in those instances. But the problem really has been at the state – in Canada, is really taken on this sort of nanny approach, where, again, for the right or wrong reasons of the drug war, it was that there just was no place for these medicines.

And so with that, that suppressed a lot of research and innovation. And so, again, that’s another aspect that I think, you know, you bridge consensus to research and innovation. And that’s really a problem though, because the international drug framework that is in existence because of this drug war prohibition, suppresses this research. So again, you know, until we address that the last 100 years were wrong, that the deck has unnecessarily been stacked against government politicians and society, meaning, you know, the ability to address this problem has been totally limited. Which then affects the ability for collaboration and coordination. But we do need that because these types of problems are going to take, not just government, but they are also going to take and require reciprocal buy-in from society, in order for it to have teeth.

How do we design a new drug policy against volatility? Well, I touched on it earlier, in that there has to be evidence-based policy.

Yves Faguy: Right.

Rob Laurie: We need multi-party support and, you know, the Conservative government, as traditionally, anything to do with this kind of drug access, or therapy around drug – is an issue that I think the Conservative government, if they do get into power on this next election, have their work cut out for them. Because this is traditionally an area that Conservatives tend to deal with, with prohibition. So it’ll be interesting to see, does this experiment, you know, will it withstand an election? The institutionalization of drug policy within existing governance structures is again, an area that I think can help quell political volatility.

Again, I think the government needs to creative –

Yves Faguy: How do you – what do you mean – what do you mean, sorry, by that, by the institutionalization of drug policy?

Rob Laurie: Well regulatory bodies for example, that can assist government ministries in streamlining some of these conditions, or considerations. Because I think there a lot of good non-government advocacy groups that have been challenging and trying to work with government. But the problem is, is you’ve got the Minister, and you know, two Ministries effectively dealing with this. Mental health and addictions and Health Canada. So, effectively, I think that the creation of further government departments to help with that interface, with grassroots initiative stakeholders, and to be able to properly address these blind spots that continue to be overlooked in the way that government goes about things.

Yves Faguy: How big would this change be in the government’s approach to illicit substances? I’m sorry, I’ll just reframe the question. How do governments need to involve themselves in providing and regulating what are now illegal drugs? Do they need to be there as part of, you know – what’s their role in the solution to safe supply, ideally?

Rob Laurie: There needs to be some form of supply. Because without supply, you’re effectively forcing people to break the law. And it’ll be interesting to see if the government is sued in this regard. They were sued in cannabis; they’re being sued for psilocybin; they were sued on safe injection sites; there was the PHS case, which dealt again, with heroin, and so if the government forces people into a more dangerous situation, then it will indicate or will demonstrate that the – these types of policies may fall afoul of the Charter. You know, when you look at Section 7, life, liberty, security of a person, right? Do these provisions take an addict and a drug user and put them in a position of user recidivism, where effectively they’re just stuck in a situation they can’t get out of.

I mean we have to recognize that a lot of what happens in Canada’s worst zip code, which is the downtown East side, it’s very much a predatorial environment. You have drug abuse, mental health, which again, these folks are preyed upon. So if you have people that cannot escape an addiction, and yet, their supplier is allowed to keep them hooked on unsafe supply and in unsafe circumstances, you could see litigation. And there was the Bedford case which dealt with some of the criminal laws around sex work. And that these laws ended up putting workers in unsafe situations. So ultimately, I think the government – I mean, look I’m glad they’re talking about this. I’m glad things are being done. But typical, they don’t go far enough and the deficiency of everyone that I’ve spoken to about this, is that, without safe supply, this program is very limited and has the potential, I think, to leave some facets of society worse off than they would be, if there weren’t stricter means of separating people from some of these dangerous situations.

Yves Faguy: But this is interesting. So the government – governments are exposing themselves and their own liability by not providing for the safe supply of drugs to these users. And on the other hand, it seems quite fraught with danger as well to be supplying them with the supply. What’s your sense of like, how deeply are governments thinking about this? How deeply is the BC government trying to, sort of square this issue?

Rob Laurie: Well I think safe supply is next, and I mean, it has to be because when the first Section 56 for psilocybin was granted for Thomas Hartle in August of 2020, which was the first Section 56 for psilocybin since 1971, right? Ultimately, unlike medical cannabis, where our first Section 56 in that context was Terry Parker. Terry Parker was an epileptic who was allowed to grow – well he grew cannabis for himself and other epileptics. And effectively, in that case, the Supreme Court of Canada found that it was not constitutional for Mr. Parker to be put in a position where, if he followed the law, he would go without his medicine. But if he took his medicine, he’d be breaking the law. And that effectively led to the creation of a – of the first licensed, you know medical access for Cannabis.

But now, in the case of psilocybin, Mr. Hartle was, I get, allowed to transport psilocybin, he could process psilocybin, which effectively is like akin to grinding it and stirring it with honey or chocolate. He could destroy, he could traffic it. But he could not produce it. I mean, he could not get his own supply. And so ultimately, the initial Section 56 folks who were exempted had to source their psilocybin and many still have to, from the black market. And so to say that the black market is providing dangerous product, is I think, a dangerous over-simplification of the situation.

I mean, let’s take Dana Larsen. Dana Larsen has been a long-time cannabis advocate. Dana Larsen makes no bones that he believes in the access and – of providing safe supply, which he has done for over, what, about 15 years now, for cannabis, in the last three or four years, he has been doing safe supply of psilocybin and other psychedelics. But that money that has been, you know, would traditionally be put into litigation and advocacy, Dana and his people have effectively created safe drug testing, you know to get your drugs tested.ca. And that would – they were granted emergency powers by the BC government because, I think they’re the only ones that are offering a, you know, an anonymous testing service in order to at least provide some guarantee of testing and supply.

And you know, Dana – they just won’t arrest Dana, you know? And so that tells me that the government aren’t sure how truly to address this, but they know that if they start arresting people, and they start cutting off supply, they know that that’s going to leave them open for Charter litigation. And I think that’s exactly another reason we touched on earlier, is that the City of Vancouver, just like the provincial government, in the context of going after unlicensed Indigenous cannabis operators, is that they – I think they’re not sure how they would do in a Charter challenge. Just like it took two and a half years in the City of Vancouver dispensary test case, to get a decision. And until we were able to go to court, and again, I think that other municipalities – ‘cause yeah, in those we had Victoria, Chimanus, Vancouver, Kelowna, Aldergrove, effectively we were able to tie up all of the enforcement proceedings because there was a genuine Charter issue –

Yves Faguy: But I’d still think that among critics of called decriminalization or legalization, I think there’s some legitimate concerns about what it means for encouraging youth to take these substances. In a world where drugs are decriminalized, okay, or legalized, you know what role is there for the law in discouraging the consumption of drugs? What roles are for the state in doing that? What role should government be playing in suppressing the demand for drugs, because somewhere, at the end of the day, you – I mean, in my mind, and maybe I’m wrong, but like you can bring all the – you can bring all the safe supply that you want into the province, or into the country, but there’s still going to be an unsafe supply pouring in, and so somewhere, there has to be, or I think a lot of people believe that there has to be a component of drug policy that is on suppressing the demand.

Rob Laurie: Danya Fast was quoted recently in an article and she’s a research scientist at the BC Centre On Substance Use. And she worries about the unintended consequences of excluding youth under 18, from decriminalization. And, you know, she argues that the abstinence-based approach for youth has not worked. So again, still folks under 18, 17-year-old, for example, could technically still, depending on the circumstances, perhaps be subject to some form of prosecution, even if it’s under Youth Offenders. But again, there’s still a possibility there, for that.

The province really has only focused on harm reduction, the other critics argue. I mean there are three other pillars of the drug strategy, which include prevention, treatment and enforcement. The harm reduction side, without addressing or having those considerations in balance with these others, will just, I think continue to proliferate a situation that is kind of out of whack, which is what we’ve seen with how the downtown East side and other neighbourhoods have proliferated. But, a flip side that’s very important to make, that Vancouver is Vancouver. It does not represent how the rest of the province operates. In fact, you know, you take the view of the RCMP and 100-mile house, for example. They have a very different attitude towards drugs and mental health, than for example, we see in Vancouver.

So again, I think what it – what’s good about this is, is it levels the playing field and allows some room for creativity with regional and municipal stake holders to look at how best to address some of these issues. So it gives a bit of a green light, I think to get a little bit more creative as opposed to just prohibition, which, there’s very little creativity there. It’s a zero-sum game, which arguably has not worked.

Yves Faguy: What would your priority be for the next step? You had safe supply as one.

Rob Laurie: Safe supply, safe consumption sites, I think are, at least in cannabis, they – that has been a huge challenge and if we look at cannabis as medicine, for example, the big obstacle to safe consumption sites is the Clean Air Work Safe Laws. So you know, if we look at safe consumption in the context of these other decriminalized supplies, are there externalities which will require other areas of regulation that will, you know will need to be changed? And you know, the best example, really is the you know, smoking in the workplace, which, how are you going to have you know, the consumption of crack in a safe injection site, if they don’t allow, you know – even like the Vancouver Club, for example, if you want to smoke a cigar, you literally got to go onto the roof. Right? And even with the legality of cannabis, you know, I’m sure people smoke a joint once in a while, on the roof of the Vancouver Club, but you can’t smoke a cigarette, a cigar, or anything – a pipe, because of the Clean Air Law.

Yves Faguy: What are the lessons should we be learning from the legalization of recreational cannabis?

Rob Laurie: Well I think the importance of regulation. It allowed for a safer and more controlled market. I mean it’s not perfect, the black market still is in existence. It, you know as a direct competitor. But let’s face it, safe supply, legal access, is fantastic. Versus a country like, you go to Mexico, where you could still be arrested and go to jail even though there’s been a constitutional declaration on this. Going to the US for example, is again, it’s fantastic, being able to consume cannabis legally, at the state level, but having a, you know, fully legalized, federal system, provides certainty and has addressed risks. I think, you know, we’ve also learned that there’s an ongoing need for education, right? Education and awareness campaigns, they are crucial. And they have been crucial for helping people to understand the risks and the benefits with cannabis use.

The problem though is cannabis – despite it not being like alcohol and tobacco. I mean alcohol and tobacco, if used as directed, will kill you, cannabis on the other hand, you know, there are medical benefits. However, cannabis is regulated and marketed like alcohol or tobacco, right? Because that’s effectively – since the RJR-MacDonald case, that’s how tobacco products are regulated and I think, you know again, informing the public that cannabis is not tobacco, has been huge.

Let’s see, equity. The importance of equity’s been huge, I mean traditionally, cannabis has been kind of a white man industry. The legal industry certainly has, it’s basically replaced the legacy participants by a bunch of rich white corporate guys that really don’t know what they’re doing. So the importance of equity and realizing the injustice and including those who’ve been marginalized and excluded is a lesson. And while finally, I guess, challenges of implementation. You’re – they’re never going to get it right. And I don’t think that should dissuade folks from trying to re-address these poor laws. But deregulation and legalization of cannabis, I mean, it required significant planning and implementation efforts. It still does. I mean in the areas of licensing, distribution and law enforcement, we’re still seeing challenge – like the challenges and lessons to be learning in this area, that ultimately, we will see in these other areas.

Yves Faguy: I think that’s an important point because I think that, you know, for all that might have gone wrong with some aspects of the legalization of cannabis, there is a sense that there was a plan in place. Am I wrong in getting the sense that with this experiment in BC, there’s a lot less planning in place?

Rob Laurie: They had to do something and they did something, and I don’t think you can compare the legalization efforts and that whole machinery, I mean, there was 20 years behind that more or less, all right? Getting to, and I mean, coupled with the fact that Justin Trudeau ran on an election campaign – that’s probably the only thing about Justin Trudeau – you know, I think that young – he’s implemented, you know the system. But let me explain, the implementation of legalized cannabis was nothing like the litigation that got us there. In fact, you – what the government did in that following Allard and Smith in 2015, when they were then – had to go back to the drawing board when the MMPR, the Medical Marijuana Purpose Regs were declared, incompatible with the Charter, well they effectively drafted the Cannabis Act and the amendments, not in line with the jurisprudence of reasonable dignified patient access. It was effectively done to create a government monopoly.

So instead of including the legacy actors and folks who know what they’re doing, the federal government effectively tried to patch over, like a biker gang, they’re rivals and exclude them. And the irony in doing that, it’s the black market is – basically, without the black market, it’s been the only thing that has kept the legal market honest. You know, the oh, unsafe supply and this, that and the other thing, I mean, no the – thank God for the unregulated, illegal market, because it’s kept the legal market honest.

Yves Faguy: So what do you expect is going to happen in BC, over the next – we have a three-year window right? What does the story look like in 2020, on, you know, January 31st, 2026?

Rob Laurie: It’ll be interesting to see the data and the numbers because look, I think numbers and data can always be manipulated, and can tell a story. Again, does this save lives? At the end of the day whether government is doing and has been doing is not saved lives. So again, if we’re able to look at the trajectory of deaths from what is was about 2016, to now, we could possibly see, have there been changes in the trends, in the numbers. But at the end of the day, you may also have a reduced number of deaths but you may have a proliferation of folks who are strung out, drug addicted, and affectively, until there is acceptable counselling, therapy and access to the other services needed, are we just going to end up creating something akin to a larger ticking time bomb?

Yves Faguy: What do the experiences of other jurisdictions tell us? Oregon is – has gone down this path a little bit, quite a bit. Obviously, there’s Portugal which is another notable jurisdiction. What have they gotten right? What have they gotten wrong? How can we learn from them?

Rob Laurie: Well I think a lot of this comes down to and you know, the Portugal experiment of decriminalization and, you know what’s happened in the States, and when we look at let’s see, Colorado, which is, I think, you know they’re – Colorado and Oregon are kind of meeting the States, when it comes to these areas – these initiatives. You know, I guess the difficulty is that they’re trying to – they’re – you know, I guess they’re looking at trying to create a therapeutic model, address safe supply, and mental health and addiction issues, sort of all at once. You know, and again, they’re doing it at a State level which is still illegal at the federal level, which again, will be interested to see you know, will this work?

But the point I was trying to make, is that a lot of these decisions with the decriminalisation of psychedelics in Oregon, in certain municipalities in California, and Colorado, is, these were driven by decisions of State prosecutors who effectively were – made the case to State government saying that we should be diverting these non-violent offenders with possession offences, first time, you know, drug users, teenagers with a bag of mushrooms. Or you know, young adults with a bag of mushrooms, should they be in the criminal justice system? So really, this has been a means of diverting people who should not be in the criminal justice system, out of the criminal justice system, which, if they’re not being addressed by that, then how should these issues be addressed? And well, they’re kind of throwing up the same decriminalization hail Mary that we’ve seen in BC, but without safe supply – again, it’s – it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.

Yves Faguy: So nobody’s really found the magic recipe, or they’re just not putting the resources into it, that they need to.

Rob Laurie: Well let’s – come on, let’s just look at this another way. Do we need all this study? Do we need all this research? Oh we can’t do anything with cannabis, it’s dangerous, it’s illegal. I mean, come on, cannabis is arguably the most studied plant, in the history. I mean, Hypocrites who, you know, the basis of modern western medicine is based on Ayurvedic medicine, which has – cannabis is beyond documented. Cannabis is also one of the cornerstone medicines of Chinese herbal medicine. Again, it’s been around for thousands of years. So my feeling in all of this, really with regard to a lot of access for cannabis and psychedelics and, again, some of these heavier opioids is that they’ve been around for centuries. Thousands of years, in some instances.

And in fact, we’re trying to regulate and we have had a history of regulating substances in a manner that makes no sense. Like, Wade Davis, I saw speak recently, and he said it makes no sense that you know, coca leaf to cocaine is what vodka’s are to potato. We don’t outlaw potatoes, and we regulate vodka. So why can’t we do the same with these other substances, and ultimately, you know, I think we need to do a better job as lawyers and members of society, holding government to account for these decisions. Because great, cannabis is legal, but really, for me, why was it illegal?

Can government – if you are so wrong over the last 100 years about cannabis, why should I take anything you say about COVID, or vaccinations, or psychedelics, or anything? When you’re so wrong about everything else. So really, I think, when it comes to cannabis, decriminalization, drug use, they are personal decisions. Government’s role in all of that are to enable people to come to the right decisions and have the right facilities and infrastructure in place to act on that. And for too long, government, I believe was totally played lip service to that, and is wondering, you know, effectively why there is the lack of trust and engagement with government. And I think a lot of it comes down to agendas and explanations, which at the end of the day, bare little reality to the situation confronting everyone.

Yves Faguy: And so, how could it best reverse that and earn a little bit of trust? On this particular file?

Rob Laurie: Well I think there needs to be some degree of reconciliation. You know, we’ve seen it, and I – and look, this isn’t me comparing drug prohibition to the horrific atrocities that we have seen in First Nations, but the point I’m trying to take away from this is, is that an important point of moving forward in that dealing, is reconciliation. And if we look at drug war and the drug war and prohibition in similar regards, that people lost their lives, they lost their livelihoods. Their children were taken from them, their property was, you know, was confiscated through civil forfeiture. The stigma associated with that – and again, there’s been very little from government to realize, hey we were wrong about the last 90 years of the drug war. But there is and it just, like it’s more of this attitude of we’re giving you rights and we’re giving you privileges that, to be honest, I regard as a birthright. And I more look at government being in the way.

So I think we’re at an interesting crossroads that the government’s wrong, decriminalization has been declared, dominos are beginning to fall, and that the next phases of history have yet to be written and we could all play an important part in that. Because look, drugs are not bad, it’s not a grey or a black and white, or even a grey area. Drugs are what they are. It’s more of an analysis of the context and the circumstances of which that drug or that substance or that compound is being sought to be used, and that is a dialogue and a discussion that I really think that we need to consider. Because with all due respect, if – I’ve said this to Bruce Linton, at Canopy, that you know, that I’m really lucky that, well for me, growing up, Ritalin was legal, it was regulated, and in my case, it was the difference between, you know, being a functioning member of the class, or failing miserably. And you know, in my case, I’m so lucky that I had my parents, family doctor and teachers that all wanted to see me succeed, and all played a very valuable part of in that dialogue.

And ultimately, I think that’s what we need to – how we need to look at drugs and medication is, is this being used in a context that’s actually helping people? And again, you may need to use heroin, to help heroin addicts get off heroin. That doesn’t make heroin itself illegal. In fact, heroine, talk to Keith Richards, he has been using heroin for the last 50 years, and when it comes down to with him, is it’s really, it comes down to the potency and the quality of the supply. So you know, this is why I think we need to be looking at drugs more of as a tool. And educating people on the best means of using the tools. And the damage and the injury that can happen. I mean, it’s just like using a power saw without safety goggles, you’re going to get injured. We don’t ban power tools, we just have, again, education and best practice and guidance on how to engage in these tools successfully. And I think that’s the way we got to look at it.

Because for me, if my parents had to go to meth cooks, and sneak around to like Hell’s Angels bikers to try to procure Ritalin? You know for me, that’s the context that I look at cannabis for poor parents that again, have to, you know, or have had to break the law in order to provide a quality of life to their children. That up until recently, government said was wrong and illegal.

Yves Faguy: Rob Laurie, I want to thank you for joining us for spending a good hour with us explaining to us, you know, some of these issues and making us think a little differently about the problem, generally.

Rob Laurie: Well if I could conclude on one final, positive note, this is a call to action. Drug regulation, cannabis laws and the rules, laws, regulations around psychedelics, it’s a new era. For a while, there’s only been a, you know, small handful of lawyers in this space, and I think more lawyers need to be involved in the space and need to help government as well as law societies and college of physicians and nurses be better acquainted with the laws, the rules, the regs, and the opportunities to try to reverse a lot of these detrimental pathways through drug war prohibition, that have ultimately led to many of these circumstances we’re at now. But thank you very much for having me, as indicated, it’s a real honor to be able to speak with the CBA, and be part of this dialogue. So thank you very much for having me.

Yves Faguy: Thank you Rob.

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Hello, I’m Steve Bujold, president of the Canadian Bar Association. I’d like to invite you to welcome with me, Barbara Finley, Lee Nevins, and Judge Kale MacKenzie, among others. To a series of kitchen table discussions on the legal system. Protecting its institutions, judicial independence, access to justice. Where to start? You can see there’s a lot to talk about. Conversations with the President, episode one, is out now.