top of page
  • Samantha A. D’Souza

The Role of Rehabilitation in the Sentencing of Drug Users

The “War on Drugs,” beginning in the 1970s, is an infamous phrase used to refer to an initiative headed by the United States to stop illegal drug use, distribution, and trade by enforcing mandatory minimum sentences for users and dealers ( Editors, 2017). It has been heavily criticized by experts and civilians who oppose the severity of the approach. Rehabilitation has consistently proven to be a more effective strategy compared to incarceration for three reasons: the drug market differs from a traditional one, mandatory minimum sentences result in a large number of non-violent drug offenders, and rehabilitation-based strategies have seen incredible success in the past.

In a traditional market, a low supply coupled with high demand produces high prices and eventually, less demand. However, drugs are not as price-sensitive as other goods. Thus, the demand will not fluctuate much when the price of the goods changes (National Research Council, 2010). As a result, casual users may feel motivated to buy less, but the target of the initiative, drug addicts and abusers, are unlikely to change their behaviour. However, just like other markets, there are a variety of outside factors that additionally affect the demand for illegal drugs. In a report by the National Research Council, they discovered that additional factors such as changing societal views, public policies, law enforcement measures and economic changes are likely the best explanation for changes in the drug market. (National Research Council, 2010). This indicates that a rehabilitation strategy that targets outside influences would be more effective in cutting down the demand for these drugs than a strong-arm approach.

Furthermore, cutting off supply to reduce demand is fundamentally wrong due to the balloon effect, which is when drug production is simply displaced and moved to another region or country. The production will then have a cyclical nature and simply rotate production regions forever. This is seen in the cocaine production process that has moved between Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia for the notable past (COHA, 2013). Drugs will always have a supply because when you close down one route, another will be found. When policy-makers attempt to solve the problem of drug use, they should target the factors that truly affect the drug market, instead of only attempting to lessen supply.

Moreover, municipal funding to take down major drug operations result in finding and arresting small-time dealers and users before targeting kingpins. As a result, a large number of non-violent drug offenders go to prison. This is unfavourable as research shows that the incarceration of injection drug users is an important factor in Canada’s HIV problem. A study found that the amount of HIV cases in Canadian prisons has risen by 35 percent since the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences, causing the belief that it is a direct result of the increase in incarcerated drug users (Mandatory Minimum Sentences, 2006). This worsens the health of prisoners overall, but will also eventually affect the general population when these inmates are released. Decreasing the number of non-violent drug offenders in prisons will also actively avoid the additional costs of treating HIV along with the cost of prisoners in general.

Additionally, in a study conducted for the Department of Justice Canada, it was seen that “drug consumption and drug-related crime seem to be unaffected, in any measurable way, by severe [mandatory minimum sentences].” (Mandatory Minimum Sentences, 2006). Not only are these sentences ineffective, but by creating harsher sentences for those dealing or using illegal drugs, the government unintentionally targets the most marginalized groups and further disadvantages them. Since mandatory minimum sentencing is unsuccessful and unfair, and treatment is more cost-effective in the long-term, the logical decision for governments to make is to reallocate these funds into rehabilitation- and treatment-based plans.

Evidently, European cities facing drug crises in the past have implemented rehabilitation-based strategies to solve these issues, which have seen tremendous success. This approach is called the “Four Pillars approach”, and is based on four principles: Prevention, Treatment, Harm Reduction, and Enforcement (City of Vancouver, n.d.). The original strategy in Switzerland involved controversial actions such as drug consumption rooms, which are facilities where illicit drugs can be used safely and under the supervision of trained professionals. However, when brought to a referendum several times, the public voted largely in favour of it. This is because statistics support this plan: over the past 20 years, opioid-related deaths have decreased by approximately 64 percent (Knopf, 2019). Thilo Beck, an addiction psychiatrist, also reported that 75 percent of active users are in treatment on a given day, and approximately 95 percent have experienced treatment at one point (Knopf, 2019). These governments have not forced or told users to stop, nor are they punishing them, and yet they are choosing to stop on their own. As a result of receiving treatment, they can focus on reconnecting with family and finding housing or work. After this law was enacted, the price and purity of these illegal drugs also dropped, with the Swiss prosecuting less drug crimes overall (Knopf, 2019).

The Four Pillars Approach sounds like a miracle solution, but Canada can implement this easily, as seen in Vancouver’s efforts. Their prevention pillar uses strategies that prevent the harmful use of addictive substances by promoting public education, training in the workplace, transitional housing, and accessible healthcare, while also targeting at-risk populations like youth or Indigenous communities. Prevention usually takes the most commitment and resources but has the greatest impact on reducing the use and abuse of drugs. The treatment pillar encourages people to actively make healthier decisions by using interventions and support programs, such as withdrawal management. This is when individuals receive medical and psychological treatment after experiencing symptoms of withdrawal. Equally important, harm reduction focuses on the damages caused by the use of addictive substances rather than the illegal products themselves. The priority is to create plans with achievable goals to improve the overall health of the user’s life, with initiatives like needle-exchange programs. These programs involve the provision of equipment, such as clean needles at little to no cost, in an attempt to reduce the spread of blood-borne diseases. The last pillar is enforcement, where the goal is to reduce crime while protecting the most vulnerable. Systems like Drug Treatment Courts provide alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders, mandating treatment services instead of jail time, and are a crucial support in the journey to reducing overall drug abuse (City of Vancouver, n.d.). Seeing as these strategies have been successfully implemented in Western societies and have brought success to these countries, Canada should follow in their footsteps.

The strategy behind the “War on Drugs” may have seemed promising when first created, but after decades of witnessing its shortcomings and unintended side-effects, it must be stopped. The drug market operates differently from a standard market, as low supply does not correlate with low demand. Mandatory minimum sentences also cause many problems, such as a large population of non-violent drug offenders in prison with health issues. Lastly, strategies that prioritize rehabilitation rather than incarceration such as the “Four Pillars” strategy have seen much more success than the severe ones implemented in the past. Rehabilitation is clearly a promising approach to reduce the prevalence of illegal drugs in Canada.

About the author:

Samantha is a grade 11 student at St. Edmund Campion Secondary School. She is a friendly, hardworking, and responsible individual with a passion for business and justice! She is contactable at


City of Vancouver. Four Pillars drug strategy.

COHA. (2013, October 11). The Balloon Effect, In Effect: Humala, Peru, and the Drug Dilemma. COHA. Editors. (2017, May 31). War on Drugs.

Knopf, T. (2019, January 21). Switzerland couldn't stop drug users. So it started supporting them. North Carolina Health News. s-so-it-started-supporting-them/.

Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Drug Offences: Why Everyone Loses. (2006). Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. National Research Council. (2010). Understanding the Demand for Illegal Drugs. The National Academies Press.

62 views0 comments


bottom of page