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GEORGE: The human cost of inertia

Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Chris George
February 06, 2018 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


"By continuing to provide timely, accurate data to the public, and policy and decision-makers throughout the province, we're able to support evidence-based measures to keep British Columbians safer when it comes to substance use," chief coroner Lisa Lapointe says..." - More than 1,400 people in B.C. died of overdose last year.

So the body count is in. In British Columbia, we are still seeing year over year growth in that number. Is there hope? Sure. We're seeing more and more people, agencies, and institutions working around federal drug law and finding ways to save people.

To save them from that same law.

Even the police in one of our major cities have chosen to selectively prosecute, hopefully recognizing the impact a drug conviction has on a person who is actually in need of medical help.

Prohibition of drugs has led to a myriad of social and individual ills, more than it could have possibly ever been designed to quell. The creation and perpetuation of the black market flows directly from the criminal sanctions. The high prices that the drugs demand has led criminal organizations into the control of the markets, even as it drives addicts onto the street looking for easy money. And the drug convictions and prosecutions for petty crime have closed the door on many of the users from ever restoring their potential as memebers of our community.

Prohibition has always killed people. The inconsistencies in street drugs have always put people at risk of overdose. The numbers have always been low enough, and the unexamined social assumptions around drug abuse have made it easy for us to write those people off. Our response, or lack thereof, to the ongoing mass poisoning stems from these assumptions.

Back in 1982, someone added some potassium cyanide to bottles of Tylenol on the shelves of various grocery and drug stores in Chicago. Seven people died. The response was virtually immediate, thorough and far reaching. Legislation was passed, new safety measures were announced and steps were taken to make sure nothing like that could ever happen again.

Fourteen hundred. Here. In our home province. Last year.

What is wrong with us?

Canadian prohibition began in British Columbia, with opium. As with cannabis, the initial motive for prohibiting it was more racial than anything else. Sure, more and more white people were trying opium, and some were developing addictions. But the majority of users at the time were Chinese. The prohibition expanded from there, encompassing all communities across the country and covering many more drugs.

Do these drugs do harm to people? Undoubtedly. Do they harm society? A debateable question. Do the harms to society from the drugs outweigh the harms to society and individuals that flow from prohibition? I don't think so.

The usage rates, at least over the past forty years or so, are remarkably consistent, no matter what level of enforcement the current "law and order" government was making noise about at the time. Nixon's "War On Drugs" and the subsequent "me too! me too!" from politicians here had remarkably little impact on the drug use trend, which is slowly and steadily up.

The homelessness issue that is currently top of mind in many of our communities has opened up the conversation, but not in a good way. The homeless have been written off as a nest of anarchists and drug addicts. Never mind that it is not actually the case. Think about the stereotype of "drug addict". How is it that we can think of people who have a disease as being somehow less than human?

Don't forget that over half of those who lost their lives last year weren't homeless street people or back alley addicts. They were our friends, our neighbours, our family.

A major beef that most people have with "street people" is the level of petty crime. Heroin addicts need money to feed their addiction. Prohibition has raised the cost of a daily habit so far beyond the cost of production of the drug that extensive criminal organizations, terrorist groups, and even sovereign states have come to rely on the trade to fund their operations. Eliminate the prohibition and both street crime and all the rest goes away.

Is non-prescription drug abuse a medical problem rooted in the human response to trauma or a personal choice?

How a person answers this question matters. People vote. They donate money to political parties. Politicians form governments. And so laws are passed. In the case of prohibition, laws, and the institutions charged with enforcing them, are maintained by political will. As long as the answer is "personal choice" for a majority in society, those institutions and their budgets will continue to get our attention.

If we as a society decide that "personal choice" is the correct answer, than how do we justify creating a law to take that choice away from people?

Ending prohibition would not eliminate drug use because the social causes which create and drive people to use the drugs would still exist. But neither can prohibition. What ending this century long social experiment can do though is save the lives of a thousand or more people in our province starting right now, this year. Failure to act will leave us with blood on our hands again. Prohibition has made this bed for us, but we don't have to lie in it. Not any longer.

It is time we stopped having to work around the law as we seek to save lives. It is time our federal government looked seriously at our current legislation and its causal role in both criminal activity and its impact on the lives of Canadians. It is time we took on responsibility for the effects of ill advised legislation, especially as that legislation was originally passed for reasons that should not be given any weight in today's society.

Until this changes we will continue to suffer from these self-inflicted wounds. I certainly hope that at this time time next year we aren't marveling at another 40% jump in the body count.

— Chris George believes one measure of a just society is found in how well it balances fiscally conservative economics with social responsibility and environmental soundness in all of its living arrangements.

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