Our Neighbor To the North Stalling on Reform

Vancouver’s reputation as the Amsterdam of North America rests as much on good intention as actual practice.

John P. Walters, the U.S. government drug czar, unintentionally helped the British Columbia city gain its reputation when he made a visit there in November 2002, as Canada was moving toward de facto, if not full legal decriminalization of marijuana. Walters threatened to slow cross-boarder traffic, through increased inspection of cars and trucks, in order to keep Canadian marijuana, particularly the highly coveted “B.C. bud,” out of the U.S. The traffic jams, he warned, would harm tourism and trade.

In one symbolic gesture of the problems Walters and his U.S. anti-drug crusaders would face, the drug czar’s luncheon speech was interrupted frequently by marijuana activists.

With huge demand for the new B.C. pot, enforcement against prosperous Canadian pot farmers would be a giant undertaking, transforming law enforcement as the mission crowds out other priorities. And polling data indicates that residents of British Columbia have the most liberal attitudes in Canada—by 2000, 56 percent supported marijuana’s outright legalization.

While U.S. officialdom focuses on pot, Vancouver has aimed to confront more difficult substance abuse problems. Its downtown is an epicenter for drug use, alcoholism in public view on the streets, and homelessness. HIV infection is common in the homeless population, and throughout the ‘90s, overdose deaths reached 600 a year.

The city’s skid row scene became a potent issue in municipal politics, with real estate developers eager to move derelicts out and transform cheap properties into expensive ones. Drug reformers objected, arguing that the mix of poverty, dependency, depression, and addiction is a public health problem. They wanted to keep this population concentrated and visible so that resources could easily be targeted toward those persons in need.

Vancouver’s efforts were echoed through Canada, as that nation, repelled by the U.S. drug war efforts and attracted to innovative policies in Europe, began a thorough review of its drug policies. A federal Special Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs issued a multi-volume report calling for the revamping of national drug policies including decriminalization of marijuana. The Parliament seemed headed in the same direction as Vancouver.

Vancouver’s mayor and City Council resisted the bulk of the real estate industry’s demands and took a number of proactive steps, including the opening of safe injecting rooms under the supervision of a medical staff. Needle users shoot up in a sanitary environment with access to medical services and immediate care if an injection turns into an overdose. Dr. Richard Mathias, a professor of epidemiology at the University of British Columbia, glows when he talks about the zero deaths from inadvertent overdoses at Vancouver’s safe injecting rooms. Across the city, the number of overdoses deaths has been reduced by two thirds to roughly 200 a year.

At the federal level, the effort is more halting. Though marijuana arrests have virtually ended in Canada, Parliament has never actually voted on decriminalization, a matter that keeps getting postponed. A pilot program that distributes heroin to heavy users has floundered, as clients must return several times a day for injections. In Switzerland, the government sells heroin to users, in the wake of a 1999 voter referendum. Proponents of that effort say that by taking the drug out of the criminal underground, heroin users are able to hold jobs and pay rent.

Liberal British Columbia has tried to spur greater federal action. This month, the province’s Health Officers Council released a 38-page report, “A Public Health Approach To Drug Control in Canada.” Densely written, the report combines political science and specific regulatory schemes with a theoretical justification for approaching all psychoactive drugs—tobacco, alcohol, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana—within a common framework. Criminalization, according to the report has only spurred a “black-market economy,” while the tobacco and alcohol trade is marred by its “for-profit commercial” nature that relies on ginning up increased consumption.

The report documents research showing that no black market develops when adults have legal access to psychoactive drugs. The Health Officers Council calls for legalization, but they do so with a twist. Regulation of the legal drugs would be tightened so that these substances are freed from the imperatives of a for-profit strategy, while illegal drugs are moved into a regulatory framework. The report calls this a centrist strategy.

The overriding principle the report emphasizes is informed consent. The Health Officers Council wants producers, distributors, and users to understand the substances and their effects. For example, the report favors the use of licenses and programs, as with drivers’ education, for the purchase of psychoactive drugs. Distributors would be required to make disclosures about the effects of their products or face sanctions including being put out of business. Mathias argued that education can work if it relates to the experience youth have with drugs

“Give the kids the straight goods and they will in general make better decisions,” he said.

According to Mathias, the British Columbia report will be presented to Parliament as part of a resolution that would declare that existing drug prohibitions are a violation of the nation’s Charter, a rough equivalent of the U.S. Bill of Rights. The Globe and Mail, Toronto’s biggest newspaper, endorsed “this welcome paper,” which it said “should help push the debate away from criminal sanctions and toward the public-health model, with its sensible philosophy of reducing crime, improving health, protecting children, and using tax dollars more wisely.”

Despite this positive response, there is still considerable pessimism among Canadian drug reformers. The member of Parliament introducing the Health Officers Council report and sponsoring the resolution comes from one of Canada’s minor parties. Among the major parties, the Conservatives are strongly influenced by religious fundamentalists who support prohibition, while the Liberal Party is wary of antagonizing the U.S. The Globe and Mail has challenged both the moralists and those who think that Canada “ cannot risk legalizing marijuana for fear of the U.S. reaction” much less talk “about taking possession and trafficking of cocaine and heroin off the books” to read the British Columbia report and reconsider their positions.

But the unhappy truth is that while public opinion in Canada is moving in a progressive direction, no major party is willing to champion drug reforms. The leadership is lacking to bring the ideas to fruition. The British Columbia report nonetheless provides information that any political candidate, in Canada or the U.S., has an obligation to peruse. They need simply log on to cfdp.ca/bchoc.pdf and find a compelling brief for a new drug policy.