High Society: Drug Courts

Host David Malmo-Levine takes us to a town meeting that discusses the proposed Four Pillar Approach to Drug Problems in Vancouver. Treatment or jail time for marijuana addiction?
Marijuana legalization, the missing pillar in solving the substance abuse problem in Vancouver and all of Canada.
Analysis by Richard Cowan
In November of last year, the City of Vancouver issued a proposal to deal with the city’s “drug problems” — “A Framework for Action, A Four Pillar Approach to Drug Problems in Vancouver.”

The four pillars have been described as

1. Prevention through education and awareness.

2. Treatment of addicts through intervention and support.

3. Enforcement to increase public order and close the open drug scene in the Downtown Eastside.

4. Harm reduction, meaning making hard drugs available by prescription for addicts who are unable to quit.

In its discussion of both the problems and the solutions there is virtually no mention of marijuana, the one “drug” for which BC is most famous, and the only one produced here in large quantities.

Implicit in this silence is the fact that marijuana is simply not a significant social, public health, or public order problem, even here in the marijuana capital of Canada. One must then ask why marijuana should remain illegal, and more pertinently — or impertinently – why there was no consideration of marijuana prohibition in this study.

The kindest answer to the question is that they do not see marijuana prohibition as being a part of the problem, and consequently they do not see its legalization as part of the solution.

A consideration of each of the “four pillars” demonstrates why this was a major mistake.

1. “Prevention through education and awareness.”
Obviously, the best way to deal with any problem is to prevent it from happening in the first place. However, the effectiveness “education and awareness” depends on the “education” being credible. Unfortunately, “drug education” in Canada is still very heavily influenced by the RCMP’s prohibitionist propaganda, which becomes counterproductive, telling young Canadians that marijuana and the hard drugs are equally dangerous. This ends up meaning that hard drugs are as safe as marijuana.

Moreover, the Vancouver study ignores the fact the separation of the market for marijuana from the markets for hard drugs is the foundation of Dutch drugs policy. The success of the Dutch approach is demonstrated by the fact that Holland has a much lower rate of hard drug use than does Canada and most other European countries, especially the UK. This omission is all the more curious when one considers that the experience of various European cities was the inspiration for much of the rest of the proposals. In addition, Dutch drug education is much more credible and successful in large part because it is not prohibitionist propaganda aimed at justifying marijuana prohibition.

Thus dealing honestly with marijuana is key to preventing hard drug use.

2. “Treatment of addicts through intervention and support.”
Once a person becomes addicted he or she may seek — or be forced into — formal medical “treatment,” but that may not happen for some period of time during which the addict may seek to self-medicate with marijuana. Although the medical use of marijuana is widely recognized for the treatment of the various health problems that afflict IV drug users, it is not widely recognized that many people addicted to hard drugs and alcohol often use marijuana to alleviate the withdrawal symptoms, when they are trying to cut down or quit.

An easily accessible medical marijuana source may help, but for people whose lives are seriously disrupted — as is often the case with addicts – getting into any formal program may be difficult. It would be much better if they had immediate access to cheap, legal marijuana – in a setting in which hard drugs are forbidden, as is the case in Dutch coffee shops. Of course, to many in the rehabilitation industry, committed as they are to the model of “total abstinence” from any psychoactive substances, except for Prozac, Xanax, Luvox, Valium, etc, etc. – and of course caffeine and nicotine, this will be heresy. Nonetheless, many addicts find marijuana extremely helpful in coping with their addictions.

3. “Enforcement to increase public order and close the open drug scene in the Downtown Eastside.” (This has become a major embarrassment for the city.)
However dubious one may be about the ability of the police to “increase public order and close the open drug scene in the Downtown Eastside” it should be obvious that the police resources now being spent on marijuana prohibition would be better used on the streets. It should be noted that the Dutch also have hard drug prohibition, and they have come closer to making it work than most countries, partly because they are not using massive police resources on marijuana prohibition. In fact, the legalization of marijuana is key to any hope for making hard drug prohibition work at all.

4.”Harm reduction, meaning making hard drugs available by prescription for addicts who are unable to quit.”

This is obviously the most controversial of the proposals. The reaction of prohibitionist ideologues has been predictable, but the most immediate problem is that Vancouver is afraid that if the city tries to do this without other Canadian cities, it will become even more of a Mecca for Canadian addicts. However, no one has observed how ironic it would be if Canada distributed free heroin to addicts but continued to ban the sale of marijuana, confining it to contraband markets with heroin and cocaine.

As noted above, the legalization of marijuana and resulting price reduction and removal of contraband markets would make it easier for hard drug addicts to get it, and eliminate the nexus between the marijuana and hard drug markets. In short, it would make it easier for hard drug addicts to quit and less likely that marijuana users would come into contact with hard drugs. Inasmuch as “addiction” is often called a “relapsing disease” prevention and curing are often the same thing.

And then there is the matter of money
Although much of this effort is motivated by humanitarianism and public health concerns, the discussions about it have candidly dealt with the economic consequences of having the heart of the city blighted by the problems of substance abuse. Local merchants and property owners are especially concerned. So let’s talk about money.

The Vancouver economy, and that of the province in general, is very weak. Marijuana is a multibillion dollar a year industry, and eliminating it is neither possible nor desirable. Indeed, the only question is how much of this industry will driven into the hands of violent criminals by violent law enforcement.

The legalization of marijuana would give British Columbia in general, and Vancouver in particular, a great economic boost. The population of BC — 3,500,000 — is less than one and a half percent of that of the US. Put another way, there are at least 3 times as many regular American marijuana smokers as there are total residents of BC. And tourism is a major industry for the Vancouver.

Oh, but Vancouver wouldn’t want “drugs tourism!” The horror of it all!

No, the hypocrisy of it all.

No one talks about “drugs tourism” when people come to drink Canadian beer or BC’s extraordinary wines, even though there have been frequent problems with rowdy drunken tourists, but none related to marijuana.And those who think that marijuana smokers are just a bunch of penniless hippies need to do some market research.

Can the city or the province act unilaterally?
Canadian drug laws are set nationally, so it might seem that it would be impossible for the city or the province to formally legalize marijuana without Ottawa, and that is true. However, enforcement is carried out at the local level and there are already major differences in the way that marijuana prohibition is enforced in BC and the rest of the country.

It should also be noted that in Holland marijuana remains technically illegal. Cities set their own marijuana policies within guidelines set by the national government.

Vancouver and other BC cities could simply set their own policies and instruct their police to act within certain guidelines, as the Dutch do. Vancouver should send a delegation to Holland, and not just to Amsterdam, to examine the coffee shop system.

Ah, but what would the American government say?

Undoubtedly it would bluster, but do the Canadian people want their policies set in Washington? The people of BC are alienated enough from Ottawa, so they are certainly willing to ignore the US.

In fact, this is a real test of Canadian sovereignty.

Ultimately, however, there is really nothing that DEAland can do. The Dutch have gotten away with its policies for a quarter of a century, and most of the rest of Europe is now moving in their direction.

So de facto marijuana legalization is necessary for Vancouver to address its hard drug problems and could also make a significant contribution to its troubled economy.

This Spring the BC Marijuana Party will field candidates in elections for the provincial legislature. They will certainly insist that the city and provincial governments take a honest look at marijuana prohibition.

Until marijuana prohibition ends, one of the most beautiful cities in the world — and it most vulnerable citizens — will continue to suffer needlessly.