Monday, August 27, 2007

Canada's Shooting Gallery

Canada's Shooting Gallery

Vancouver, British Columbia

Early on a cool, rainy morning here last week, I decided to walk from my hotel in the most fashionable quarter of this fashionable West Coast metropolis to the "Downtown East Side." I was going to see an old friend, who in his retirement years has joined a Catholic ministry dedicated to outreach among the prostitutes in this notoriously seedy area. I wanted to visit the neighborhood where he works, in part, because it also happens to be where provincial authorities have set up a "safe injection site" for drug addicts. Many of the young women on the streets are hooked on opiates.

When I asked for directions from the hotel concierge, her eyebrows went up and she asked me what time of day I would be going. "As long as it's early and you stick to Pender Street, you should be OK," she said, tracing a path for me on a map.

Her advice, I later realized, was another way of saying, "stay off East Hastings Street," the epicenter of life for drug users here and the location of "InSite," North America's only legal, government-sponsored, injection clinic. Later that morning, as my friend showed me around the neighborhood in his car, I saw why. The sidewalks in front of the clinic were lined with addicts, and for blocks in both directions, all humanity looked sick, drawn, impoverished and defeated. In the gloom of a drizzly, cloud-covered Sunday morning, I felt I had entered one of Dante's inner circles of suffering.

Like most wealthy societies, Canada struggles with the problem of drug addiction. Prohibition was supposed to limit the supply of evil weeds, and thus the temptation to experiment with addictive chemicals. Yet decades of drug laws have had little effect, if any, on the availability of mind-altering substances and their corrosive effects on some part of the population.

While the benefits of prohibition are hard to discern, the cost of the war on drugs is quite clear. Inside the borders of rich countries, the large profits make vigorously pushing illegal substances worth the risk. Children, even in rural areas, are an especially attractive target under the black-market pricing structure. Addicts have to pay dearly; yet, like all intelligent vendors, dealers offer "introductory prices" for beginners. For criminals, prohibition profits make weapons, information technology and bribery of law-enforcement officials easily affordable.

These days Canadians are all too familiar with the price of the drug war outside their borders. Their military is now engaged in some of the heaviest fighting in Afghanistan, where reports from the field suggest that what is making the mission so difficult, at least in part, is the fact that the bad guys have enlisted support from the poppy growers who serve the heroin trade.

Organized crime is also flourishing in the Western Hemisphere. Colombian society has been shredded by drug cartels and, more recently, by narcotrafficking left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries. The U.S. effort to block Caribbean transit routes sent the traffickers into Central America and Mexico. Since taking office in July 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderón has made defeating the drug lords a priority. The Calderón crackdown has produced a spike in violence in the past year, claimed the lives of numerous Mexican law-enforcement officials and, if reports from the border are true, is now having a spillover effect in the Southwestern U.S. Yet the drugs keep coming, answering the demand.

This record suggests that attacking supply as a way to reduce demand is fighting a losing battle. Sophisticated economists -- most notably the late Milton Friedman -- have argued that the power of the market is just too great and that the unintended consequences are bound to cause both more bloodshed and more corruption.

Yet even though the war on drugs has been an obvious failure, Canada's experimental approach is hardly a promising alternative. Vancouver's InSite is simply horrifying in different ways. I didn't venture inside the clinic itself, but someone who has describes "bright white lights and a cold clinical setting," with the obligatory "absolutely no smoking" sign hanging at the entry. The idea is that junkies are going to use anyway so the state should help lower the risk, being careful, of course, not to pass judgment. The drugs are illegal, but in the interest of "harm reduction," the state will provide sanitary injection services. "Come right in, get your fix. There, you feel better, don't you?"

This is like something out of Aldous Huxley's novel, "Brave New World." Utilitarian big government discovers a low-cost, efficient method of getting the dregs of society out of everybody's hair. All it takes are sterile needles and mind-numbing drugs supplied by the addicts themselves. Leaving aside the quaint notion that putting oneself in a perpetually medicated state may not be the best way to reach one's human potential, the clinic's approach is hugely problematic. Even the most pro-legalization libertarians would have to agree that a government that engages in drugging the citizenry is pretty far removed from the classic definition of the modern liberal state.

Canada is now debating this issue. A group of 130 Canadian scientists and doctors recently published a statement arguing that InSite has been successful because there has been "reduced needle sharing, decreased public drug use, fewer publicly discarded syringes, and more rapid entry into detoxification services by persons using the facility." But last week Health Minister Tony Clement suggested that other studies have drawn far less happy conclusions. Critics of "harm reduction" programs say that despite free needles, junkies tend to share anyway and that addicts continue to sell sex and spread disease. They also note that signing up for "detoxification" is a far cry from rehab and it's not the least bit clear that needle clinics are paths to treatment.

There is another problem as well with the nanny province getting into the drug injection business: It adds to what one British Columbian described to me as "the growth of the poverty industry" in Vancouver. The bureaucracy that exists to "serve" the drug-dependent community has little interest in seeing the problem go away and, with it, their jobs. Here, as in many other arenas, there is a normal bureaucratic impulse to expand, broadening the state's subsidization of dependency. Viewed in this light, a state-sponsored shooting gallery is good for business.

Something is also very wrong when society officially winks at its own prohibition laws. Indeed, InSite demonstrates that encouraging drug use through the welfare state while at the same time attempting prohibition is not just illogical. It also produces the worst of all worlds.

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