From Oregon to Canada to Thailand, policymakers and the public alike are waking up to the consequences of lenient and irresponsible drug policies. Whether it is the commercialization of marijuana or the decriminalization of all other drugs, policymakers are learning the hard way that public health and safety must remain a jurisdiction’s priority. As we approach the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, on June 26, policymakers elsewhere should learn from these lessons and avoid making these same mistakes.


Just over a year ago, British Columbia received an exemption from Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, allowing the province to decriminalize the public use of dangerous illicit drugs, including fentanyl, methamphetamine, heroin, and cocaine. The public policy was viewed as a triumph by so-called “harm reduction” activists, who push dangerous perceptions that drug use should be normalized and condoned.


Parents were understandably outraged to witness people using drugs in a host of public spaces, including parks where their young children were playing. In short order, British Columbia saw a record 2,511 overdose deaths last year and the Deputy Chief of the Vancouver Police Department warned “there have been concerns from small businesses about problematic drug use,” among other consequences.  In turn, public pushback, alongside the pressure of an upcoming election, compelled policymakers to respond and reverse course.


Though this sounds like a common-sense move, officials in Canada have been misled into believing that mass decriminalization of drugs would somehow improve public health. The addiction-for-profit industry has fueled this belief via a massive misinformation campaign about the harms of marijuana and other drugs. Elected officials in BC were reminded about the importance of protecting the interests of non-users and the broader community.


Officials in Oregon, United States, recently learned a similar lesson, backtracking their experiment with the decriminalization of all illicit drugs. Passed under the guise of an activist-driven ballot measure in 2020, Oregon took a hands-off approach to its drugcrisis, allowing people to do as they pleased with drugs. Like in British Columbia, public drug use skyrocketed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the number of overdose deaths increased, as did the prevalence of substance use and crime.


In April, acknowledging that this policy had not gone as promised, liberal Governor Tina Kotek signed legislation to repeal Measure 110 and recriminalize drug possession, despite promising to uphold Measure 110 just months before. In its place is a framework to increase access to treatment. Elected officials in Oregon were reminded about the importance of treatment.


Thailand, the first and only country in Asia to legalize recreational marijuana, is now backtracking and aims to ban recreational marijuana by the end of the year. Reuters reported, “tens of thousands of cannabis shops have sprung up.” Likewise, the illicit market has expanded, and numerous illicit marijuana shops have emerged throughout communities. And psychosis related to marijuana has doubled to more than 20,000 cases since legalization.


Officials in Thailand were alarmed to find the marijuana industry aggressively marketing its products, prioritizing its profits ahead of public health. The industry’s predatory practices have led to higher rates of marijuana use among minors. Elected officials in Thailand were reminded about how the interests of the profit-driven marijuana industry are at odds with public health and safety.


Policymakers elsewhere should learn from the unintended consequences of these experiments to implement better, safer drugpolicies. It should not be controversial to prohibit public drug use or to implement policies that guide people into treatment. It should not be controversial to say we distrust the motives of emerging addiction-for-profit industries. Countries continue to contemplate extreme policy measures like drug legalization and decriminalization, they would do well to heed the lessons learned by Thailand, British Columbia, Oregon, and more.


International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking is also a fitting time to recognize the importance of supply reduction. Law enforcement agencies in the US and around the world should be commended for standing up to the cartels and their affiliates, and they should be further empowered to crack down on those trafficking dangerous psychoactive drugs.


We must recommit ourselves to implementing evidence-based drug policies focused on prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and recovery, as well as supply reduction. Doing so would help elected officials remember the importance of public health and oppose the for-profit interests of emerging industries. Oregon, British Columbia, and Thailand are reminders of what happens when these common-sense messages are forgotten or ignored.

Kevin A. Sabet, Ph.D. is president of the Foundation for Drug Policy Solutions and a former drug policy advisor to U.S. Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton.