Radical Solutions To Our Drug Problem

In February, 2009, the Globe and Mail estimated that all levels of government had spent $1.4 billion dollars on Vancouver’s Downtown East Side since 2000. If the article is correct, that works out to $230K per person, in addition to what the government spends on the average citizen. Has there been progress? Not much, apparently. Anecdotally, the neighbourhood feels as (if not more) sketchy and broken as it did a decade ago.

I’m an advocate of radical solutions to the drug problem that’s at the heart of the Downtown East Side. I, for example, think we ought to give free heroin to drug addicts. I’m also a fan of decriminalization, so I was intrigued to read this report on Portugal’s 2001 decision to “abolish all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine”:

The paper, published by Cato in April, found that in the five years after personal possession was decriminalized, illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled.

“Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success,” says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. “It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.”

There are plenty of numbers in the article, but it makes a pretty compelling case. I’d also be curious about related crime trends, such as drug-related violence, robberies and so forth. I favour decriminalization (and free heroin for addicts) because it reduces or removes the economic incentives around selling and procuring illegal narcotics.


  1. I used to be marginally for decriminalizing marijuana but against it for other drugs, but the complete failure of the War on Drugs™ has made me think that not only decriminalization, but legalization, of all drugs hard and soft may be the way to go.

    The problem is twofold right now: (a) addicts are treated as criminals instead of people with a health problem; (b) the production and distribution of drugs is an unregulated and almost entirely criminal enterprise. People die because they are out on the street with addictions leading to further infections, they commit crimes to fund their drug habits, and gang members are shooting each other to try to control the market.

    I don’t want my kids getting hooked on heroin or meth or cocaine, or so buzzed out on weed they can’t function. But I don’t want them smoking or drinking excessively either — and those things are legal and regulated. Alcohol and tobacco seem like a model for other drugs in this respect.

    Of course, even if Canada were to take the radical approach of legalizing everything, that would cause huge border problems with the U.S., so it really needs to be at least a continental approach, which is why I’m pessimistic that even decriminalization will ever happen, even if the war on drugs has been a disaster and everyone knows it.

  2. I wrote a paper for first year English arguing for complete legalization of drugs back in ’99, and there’s only been more evidence added to support that position. The illegality of drugs is a pretty new thing, as laws go – only in the last 120 years or so has it even been an issue.

  3. Your solutions aren’t radical enough. The problem is barely even a drug-use one. It’s a combination of a mental-health problem with a social-norms problem.

    I’ve cracked wise before about the DE being a centre of excellence for just about every possible social failure before, but didn’t realize it was a billion-dollar one.

    Given that this is a “cultural norm” we do not want to support, why not try gentrification of the region, combined with raw dispersion? At the present costs, you could pretty much re-institutionalize every gravely mentally ill person in the DE, and buy a nice apartment in the suburbs for all the mentally sound residents.

    This would put them into neighbourhoods and cultures where drug abuse and general hopelessness were NOT the structurally supported social and cultural norms, and in most cases, that would have a big effect on how they chose to live.

    Hard and draconian? Expensive? Easier and kinder than letting people autonomously choose to die. Cheaper than throwing money into the current black hole.

    I’m not opposed to drug legalization if it works, but I think it’s unlikely to do much to fix the problem of the DE on its own.

  4. I guess, I don’t know how I feel about legalization of drugs – something in me says something about right vs. wrong being more important than practical vs. impractical – but, putting that aside for the moment…wouldn’t that criminal establishment simply find a new way to exploit the weakest in society for personal gain? In other words, we’d STILL have a crime problem…

    No solutions here, just musings..

  5. I could go on and on (and have) but will try not to this time.

    Taxes. Instead of spending tax dollars to try to end a situation that clearly is not going to be ended by spending tax dollars on law enforcement, legalize it and tax it. Instead of spending tax dollars to treat overdoses, spend the tax dollars to provide known dosages of known purity.

    Portugal. Although they have decriminalized it, they still direct users into diversion programs. My “take” is that people who voluntarily go into diversion programs (think “AA”, for example) are those who _want_ to move away from a part of their existing lifestyle. Directing people who do not want to change into a change program is akin to Canute ordering the sea to recede.

    There is a major problem, though, in Canada with legalizing or decriminalizing personal drug possession and usage: ‘Murricans. Their visceral reaction and illogical policies on drugs combined with their fanatical zealoltry for punishment will almost certainly cause them to treat the Canadian border the same as the Mexican bor… oh, wait. Never mind.

  6. I think our feelings of right and wrong may be skewed by the past century’s drug policies. Marijuana is, by almost any rational measure, less harmful than alcohol, even for heavy users, and as far as I can tell it’s less addictive than tobacco. But that’s the easy one.

    The tough stuff is heroin, cocaine, meth, ecstasy, and so on. Is it wrong to use these substances? I think we believe they’re wrong because of the societal wreckage they cause, but how much of that arises from their illegality, and how much is inherent in what they do to their users?

    As for the crime angle, as far as I know, removal of prohibitions tends to reduce gang crime (it did for alcohol in the U.S. in the 1930s). In order to maintain their level of activity, gangs would have to find something else that is both illegal and has comparable demand in Canada. I’m not sure what that would be.

    A big part of the problem right now is that many, many people in Canada (and elsewhere) use marijuana in particular, and basically treat it as if it should be legal, generating large demand. Since the supply breaks the law (scarcity, high risk, no legal recourse for disputes), prices are high, making it worthwhile for criminals to take big risks to distribute. The demand is still there, but lower, for harder drugs. If those were legal too, what would be in high enough demand and profitable enough for the risk to be worth it for gangsters? Illegal firearms, perhaps, but I don’t think there is nearly as much demand in Canada for them, except among gangsters themselves.

  7. Incidentally, I should note that I don’t personally smoke or eat dope, take any of the harder drugs, or use tobacco. I drink the occasional beer, wine, and whisky. So I’m not really advocating this for any direct personal reason, just trying to think it through.

  8. I agree with decriminalizing the drug trade. Although I think there may be a difference between hard and soft drugs, I think that the money would be much better spent on prevention and treatment programs for people who need it. Comments that the US attitude towards the war on drugs are a huge impediment are correct but there are positive signs in that country as well. Recently, a former Seattle police chief challenged his fellow police officers to remember the last time they encountered violence from someone on marijuana – no one could come up with an answer. I couldn’t find the link to that particular story – I think it was from Boing Boing, but I did find this link from the Salem-News.com
    about this same former chief urging Obama to reform the nation’s drug laws. It’s interesting (and somewhat hopeful) stuff.

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