The Berlin Wall Theory Of Drug Prohibition

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The Berlin Wall Theory Of Drug Prohibition
Jean Kavanagh, The Huffington Post, April 4, 2014

While Toronto has been consumed by, and much of the world amused by, the antics of Mayor-in-name-only Rob Ford, a global movement is emerging that advocates alternative approaches for dealing with illegal drugs based on public health and human rights, rather than prohibition and criminalization.

And, just as Insite, North America’s only legal supervised injection site, is located in Vancouver, it is perhaps not surprising that Canada’s major contribution to the international discussion comes from the West Coast. Two former B.C. premiers and four former attorneys general agree with Vancouver, Victoria and five other municipal councils calling for legalizing and taxing marijuana.

It is perhaps equally not surprising that federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau chose Kelowna for his declaration supporting legalization and regulation of marijuana over decriminalization which only affects personal consumption and not the vast illegal trade behind it.

Trudeau noted that young people currently have easier access to marijuana than to cigarettes because they are regulated and require showing age identification for purchase. Marijuana dealers, and those selling other drugs, don’t ask for ID.

Kerrisdale residents Ray and Nichola Hall know too well the tragic outcomes of easily accessible illicit drugs. Both their sons, now in their mid 30s, were addicted to heroin and other drugs. They were raised in one of Vancouver’s most-exclusive neighbourhoods, proving that the drug trade and addiction have no boundaries.

“Presumably if heroin were legal and regulated it would become a lot more difficult to get which would be the point. That’s what we want, for it to be more difficult to get as well as making it not so profitable for the black market,” said Nichola, a retired University of British Columbia administrator, who with her husband and another couple founded the advocacy and family support group, From Grief To Action.

“I don’t see why the same arguments about prohibition wouldn’t apply for hard drugs as for alcohol. Prohibition encourages a black market and criminal gang wars,” she said in a crisp English accent.

Anyone who tells former B.C. attorney general Geoff Plant that regulating marijuana isn’t possible should watch out.

“The idea that regulation won’t do away with the black market assumes that it is not possible to create effective regulation and it is absolutely possible to create effective regulation,” said Plant who served in former premier Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government.

“The idea that we should not move forward to tax and regulate marijuana because it is not going to put an end to the black market, because criminals will still be with us is illogical. What I’m trying to suggest is that we are trying to change a bad public policy for a better public policy.

“The fact that criminals may go and find something else to play with is unfortunate and probably true given human nature, but it’s not a reason not to improve a drug policy,” he said.

The global drug reform discussion is not just about marijuana.

Countries such as Portugal, Uruguay, Colombia, Mexico, and several Central American nations have or are discussing changing how they deal with illicit drugs. In Portugal, possession of any drug for personal use is legal and Uruguay is expected to soon become the first nation in the world to fully legalize marijuana.

In Canada, while the federal government is firmly opposed, support for overhauling how we deal with illegal drugs comes from groups representing provincial public health officers, front-line mental health and addiction workers, and HIV/AIDS researchers and service providers.

Two former premiers, Mike Harcourt and Ujjal Dosanjh, who was also a federal health minister, former attorney general Geoff Plant, and Vancouver mayors for over 20 years have supported drug policy reform.

Reform efforts are led by the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition based at Simon Fraser University. Donald MacPherson, who in 2005 wrote Vancouver’s then-radical Four Pillars approach to drug policy, leads the coalition. His outrage at how we deal with addiction and mental health, when major advances have been made in other areas of health care, is peppered with salty language in his Maritime lilt.

“There’s the old fashioned alcohol-based response of ‘you have to hit rock bottom’ before you can get help. Well, post-HIV rock bottom is HIV, overdose and death. It’s a ridiculous approach to health care. What are we going to say, we won’t replace your hip until the other one wears out? When you can’t move, call us?”

Coalition members, which include the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and the University of Victoria’s Centre for Addictions Research of B.C., call for regulation of all drugs from heroin and cocaine to methamphetamine and marijuana.

They believe that regulation will make it harder to get drugs that are now sold on street corners, in shady back alleys and through dial-a-dope operations. And, they say that fear is the major reason people support prohibition even though reams of evidence show it doesn’t fix the problems it is meant to solve.

MacPherson and others, including B.C.’s Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall, emphasize they are not advocating selling such drugs at corner stores, but creating regulations for each substance based on sound health principles.

Since the legalization last November of marijuana for personal use in Washington state and Colorado, coalition members agree that regulating cannabis will be the first step in Canada.

Plant’s ire rises when considering the arguments against legalizing marijuana.

“If we get the regulation scheme right then the people who currently control the market will no longer have an economic incentive,” he said. “Almost anything would be better than the status quo and the idea that government is incapable of designing a regulatory scheme that would eliminate the economic incentive for organized crime is to be utterly ignorant and utterly ill conceived.”

Parents who have experienced the devastation of having a child addicted to drugs understand the desire to criminalize our way out of the problems caused by drug addiction, says Nichola Hall, one such parent.

Sitting in the bright kitchen of her comfortable Kerrisdale home, Hall, a co-founder of the advocacy and family support group From Grief to Action, says members have come to the conclusion that regulation is preferable to prohibition.

“From our point of view, the more difficult you make it to get a hold of this stuff the better,” she said. “So if one is convinced that it would be harder to obtain if regulated than on the black market, then that’s a really good reason for legalizing and regulating it.

“We know that people get addicted to gambling and we don’t say there should be no gambling. We know that people get addicted to alcohol and we don’t say there should be no alcohol. As long as there is very strict regulation, I don’t see why the same argument shouldn’t apply to hard drugs,” she added.

Donald MacPherson, director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, points to the success of reducing smoking through public education and said similar measures could apply to all drugs if they were legal and regulated.

“We can’t do that right now because they are illegal,” he said, adding that reform is hampered by an us-versus-them mentality focused on the most-marginalized drug users who we see on the streets but who are in fact the minority of people who use drugs.

“Most of us don’t operate in that realm. We have friends, friends of friends, we use the telephone, it gets delivered. It’s virtually impossible for enforcement to reach us. We don’t believe that our drug laws actually deter because the threat of being caught is so remote.”

Before serving as the City of Vancouver’s drug policy co-ordinator, MacPherson was director of the Carnegie Centre in the heart of the Downtown Eastside. It is perhaps because of the unruly and tragic scene that greeted him every morning that he is so passionate about finding better ways to deal with addiction and mental health issues.

He clearly remembers the desperation he witnessed for a decade.

“I’m standing on the front steps of the Carnegie Centre and people are dropping dead in the streets, walking into traffic, shoving needles into their arms, dying in hotel rooms and no response. Zero response.”

He also remembers that in the mid-1990s, health officials responded overnight to a Hepatitis A scare at a health food bar in Canada Place, site of a luxury hotel, cruise ship docks and the Vancouver Convention Centre.

“There was nothing in the papers about ‘don’t shoot heroin alone, test your heroin before you use it, this can kill you.’ But for a Hep A scare they can mobilize overnight.”

His work as drug policy co-ordinator contributed to the opening of Insite and after nine years at city hall, MacPherson decided it was time to dedicate himself full-time to changing the way we deal with drugs.

“Regulation is a means to an end. It’s one of the ways to achieve goals like reducing harm such as HIV, overdose deaths, and ending the criminalization of people using drugs. We don’t want to get caught in the trap of regulation will solve all of our problems, but it’s a place to start.”

Showing his Maritime humour, he adds: “I have the Berlin Wall theory of drug prohibition. The wall is coming down. We don’t know exactly when but it’s coming down.”

Part 1 / Huffington Post, March 20, 2014

Part 2 / Huffington Post, March 27, 2014

Part 3 / Huffington Post, April 5, 2014

Part 4 / Huffington Post, April 19, 2014

Part 5 / Huffington Post, April 27, 2014

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