Facebook’s ham-fisted response to paying for news

While Google’s response to plans by the Australian government to force social media giants to pay for news has been nuanced, Facebook’s response has been provocative.

Imgage: MobileAppDaily

Facebook announced last Wednesday that it would block news-sharing on its Australian site.

I suppose Facebook hopes to generate outrage from Australians so that the government will change its mind, but it’s not going to work. The social media titans are facing similar moves by governments around the world, including Canada. Australia is the just the latest battleground. Google has reached deals with publishers in Britain, Germany, France, Brazil and Argentina.

News is vital to a functioning democracy and it must be funded. But How? We pay for news one way or another; either with our attention through advertising or by subscriptions. The news that you receive through CFJC Today and Kamloops This Week is paid by advertisers. The Globe and Mail requires a subscription.

As newspapers folded one by one, one laughable solution to the news drought was an army of “citizen reporters” who blog the news. What we got instead was an army of ill-informed bloggers with bull horns, each shouting louder to be heard over the din.

Print publishers complain that social media giants make money on their news.   Facebook and Google respond that they only post stories that publishers freely distribute and that publishers are the ones who benefit through increased circulation. But postings by publishers are a loss-leader: they hope that readers will be attracted to their sites and eventually subscribe to their news.

You’d think that this would be a win-win situation. Facebook and Google make money from news posted on their sites and publishers reap the benefits of increased exposure.

Facebook argues that that the Australian government is trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist. Facebook said that the proposed legislation “fundamentally misunderstands” the relationship between itself and publishers, arguing that news outlets voluntarily post their article links on Facebook, which helped Australian publishers earn about $400million in 2020 through referrals.

The trouble is that the traditional business model for news publishers is broken. Paying reporters to dig up relevant news is expensive. Facebook and Google don’t pay for the news and yet get they receive revenues from it.

However, Facebook has a point: they are doing news publishers a favour and if they didn’t post reliable news stories, fake news would fill the vacuum. But their response has been ham-fisted compared to Google’s. Even though their complaint is the same, Google reached a global deal with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., owner of The Wall Street Journal and two-thirds of Australia’s major city newspapers, to develop a subscription platform and share advertising revenue.

The difference in approach mirrors the culture of the two social media titans. When Mark Zuckerberg said of Facebook, “Move Fast and Break Things,” it reflected the provocative culture of the company.

Google’s original motto was “Don’t be evil” which later became “Do the right thing.”

Canada is watching as the battle unfolds globally. Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault will be introducing legislation that will require Facebook and Google to compensate news publishers. Will the response of be one of retaliation or cooperation?

(NOTE: Since this column was published, Facebook has reached an agreement to pay news publishers)

The new climate deniers

The new climate deniers no longer deny that climate change is happening. It’s become too obvious that it is.

It used to be that climate change deniers could ridicule the notion that the Earth was warming by pointing to cold snaps like the one in Texas where thousands of cold temperature records are being broken.

Saskpower’s Carbon capture plant

But climatologists have said all along that global warming will mean more chaotic weather: hotter, colder, dryer, wetter, stormier. The obvious makes it hard for climate change deniers to dismiss wildfires, droughts, and loss of arable land to deserts.

Instead, climate deniers have surrendered to fatalism, wishful thinking, and individualism.

Sure, Big Oil hopes that we continue to dump C02 into the atmosphere but the new climate deniers are not disingenuous. It’s just that the problem seems insurmountable. People of goodwill have come to believe that it’s too late to do anything about the problem.

Not true, climatologist Michael Mann told CBC’s Quirks and Quarks:

“That’s very dangerous because first of all, it’s not true. The science indicates otherwise. The science indicates that if we reduce our carbon emissions dramatically, we can avert the worst impacts of climate change. For example, this idea that global warming is now unstoppable, that warming is going to release so much methane from the Arctic that it will warm the planet beyond habitable levels. There is no scientific support for that contention.”

The new climate deniers are not anti-science. On the contrary, they look to technological solutions. Count me in. I wish it were true, not just because I hope that science and technology will come the rescue but because my fossil-fuel lifestyle is comfortable and I wish it would continue. If only there was some way to fix the problem without inconveniencing me.

Carbon capture is wishful thinking. The plan is to keep dumping CO2 into the atmosphere but pump it back into the earth where it came from. But the future of carbon capture doesn’t look good.

Look at Saskatchewan’s Boundary Dam carbon capture plant that cost $1.5 billion to build in 2014 and still hasn’t reached its target to store 800,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide due to technological problems. Even if the technology worked, we would need 38,000 such plants. And that’s assuming that CO2 emissions remain low because of the pandemic.

Another way in which otherwise well-meaning climate deniers can paralyze global action is to advocate individualism. It’s a popular notion in the “me era”; that if we change our habits individually we can collectively accomplish great things.

But what did we, as individuals, do to remove lead from gasoline and paint -a toxic element that was causing neurological development in children delays? What did we, as individuals, do to reduce the chemicals that were thinning the Earth’s protective ozone layer? Nothing. We accomplished these things through our governments and international agreements.

The idea that individual choices and technology will save us is wishful thinking. The actions of individuals, no matter how heroic, cannot accomplish what we can collectively do through our governments.

Don’t despair. We can still keep global temperate increases less than two degrees Celsius through international cooperation. Now that the U.S. is back in the Paris Accord, there is hope that cooperation will work.

QAnon Canada: quieter, subtler

QAnon in the U.S. has taken on the militaristic quality of a religious crusade with Q as the prophet and Trump as the Messiah.  In Canada, the response has been more muted.

image: National Post

QAnon has been wildly successful and expanded beyond what the apocalyptic prophet Q intended. The identity of Q is speculative s/he could be the online avatar of the American pig farmer Jim Watkins or someone connected to Watkins. Supporters are called “Anons.”

The success of QAnon has been its skill in connecting unrelated ideologies into a tangled narrative.

QAnon has brought together incoherent groups into a big-tent scheme, complete with flowcharts of the “theoretical functional relationships” of the supposed cabal of pedophiles that is operating an international child sex-trafficking ring, and a Sephirot Map of the Pharaonic Death Cult. British writer Hari Kunzru explains the appeal of QAnon:  

“Yet despite its incoherence, there is, in a strictly aesthetic sense, something sublime about it, or at least about the experience it is trying to represent, the experience of scale and complexity, of a world that is beyond the capacity of the human mind to apprehend (Harper’s magazine, January, 2021)”.

At the gut level of QAnon is a primal fear that children are being murdered and trafficked for sex.

This gnawing primal fear is not new. The groundwork for QAnon was laid in a 1980s book titled Michelle Remembers. The book sparked the “Satanic Panic” —the belief that Satanists were hidden among us, abusing and murdering children. One sensation case took place In Martensville, Saskatchewan, where nine people were charged for being members of a satanic pedophile ring. One man was eventually convicted of sex-related charges, but no such satanic ring was found.

QAnon in Canada still has the sex trafficking of children angle at heart but is subtler. The organizer of the QAnon Canada Facebook group is a mild mannered auto-glass repairman in Elliot Lake, Ontario. Blain McElrea told Walrus magazine that his passion is “an information project” that builds bridges between truth seekers. His inclusive vision of QAnon’s prompted him to start subgroups for religious devotees, New Agers, and UFO-believers.

“Basically, all of the bad things that the New York Times says about us—I am making sure that I’m not plugging into any one of those negative labels that they’re talking about,” said McElrea.

QAnon Canada is quieter, softer. Marc-André Argentino at Concordia University has discovered a new phenomenon he calls “Pastel QAnon.” It evolved from lifestyle influencers, mommy pages, fitness pages, diet pages and alternative healing. The pastel-coloured websites express pro-Trump, racist and anti-Semitic views.

Canada’s Anons are community leaders. In the Maritimes, a yoga teacher interrupted her Instagram feed to post a four-minute lecture to her more than 1,400 followers about a coming mass spiritual awakening—after COVID-19 is revealed as a distraction—and how the satanic cabal is about to be overcome by Trump, who belongs to the “team of light.”

McElrea had 4,000 members in his QAnon Canada group before Facebook shut it down. When I tried to find it, the following message popped up on Facebook:

“This search may be associated with a dangerous conspiracy movement called QAnon. Experts say QAnon and the violence it inspires are a significant risk to public safety.”

Revenge of social media traders shakes Wall Street.

Users of the social media forum Reddit organized last Wednesday to save the game retailer GameStop from being driven into bankruptcy by hedge fund managers.

image: Twitter
The r/wallstreetbets Experience (@BetsExperience)

Wealthy hedge funds targeted GameStop in a tactic called Short and Distort. They trigger a selling frenzy by selling large volumes of stock and profit when they fall.

It’s a classic struggle between the Fat Cats and the Downtrodden.

The Reddit users, called redditors, were incensed. The responded with a “short squeeze,” forcing the price of the stock up.  The subreddit group /r/WallStreetBets came to the rescue. Followed the lead of an influential redditor with the handle /u/deepf**kingvalue they bought shares in GameStop. That drove the price of shares up, thus thwarting the plans of the evil hedge fund managers.

Redditors were rubbing their hands together in glee as short sellers lost $20 billion.

I spoke to a redditor, I’ll call Bob. He had tripled his investment in GameStop which has seen hard times during the pandemic.  “The proletariat are rising up,” said Bob, “and sticking to the man.”

Another redditor, who goes by /u/mooglie51, sent me an email:

“Who would have thought this bunch of f**king dweebs [introverted redditors] could have pissed off Wall Street so much that, all the professional financial advisors would be spraying angry spittle on television cameras everywhere. The most beautiful thing about this is that (/r/WallStreetBets) manipulated the market the same way hedge funds call a day at the office. Except in a positive way.”

Money managers are dismissive of redditors. David Baskin, president of Baskin Wealth management says:

“Some poor idiot, probably sitting at home in his basement, in his sweatpants, paid $482 a share for GameStop and maybe that was his rent money,” Baskin said. “Now he’s lost half his money in one day.”

Not so, said Bob. Redditors don’t invest any more than they can afford to lose. And they are prepared to lose if they can “stick it to the man.” There’s a real sense of community.  

Reminiscent of Occupy Wall Street, the new version is shaking up the establishment. This time, Occupy Wall Street 2.0 is using smarter tactics, seeking revenge from inside the system.

The original Occupy Wall Street was launched on October 15, 2011 in places around the world, including Kamloops. Protestors demonstrated against the growing disparity between the rich and poor that resulted from the Great Recession of 2008 when the big shots who caused the problem were bailed out and poor citizens lost their homes.

Occupy Wall Street 2.0 is bringing opposite ends of the political spectrum together. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat, complained about a trading company app that was blocking the purchase of GameStock shares in a tweet:

 “We now need to know more about @RobinhoodApp’s decision to block retail investors from purchasing stock while hedge funds are freely able to trade the stock as they see fit.”

Remarkably, Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican and a vocal supporter of former U.S. president Donald Trump, responded: “Fully agree.”

Dozens of members of the New York Young Republicans Club jumped on the anti-Wall Street bandwagon Sunday, gathering to blast the hedge-fund managers targeting GameStop.

It makes me wonder. Maybe the political spectrum isn’t a line but a circle, with both ends of meeting in defense of the poor.

Lessons learned from the pandemic about health care

When we pull together, we can quickly achieve results that have escaped us in the past.

image: Hartford Healthcare

Some liken to being at war but I prefer to compare the pandemic response to what happened when we created universal health care.

Governments have been reluctant to implement the universal coverage of drugs in the past, but in short order we have vaccines freely available for all Canadians.

It’s that easy. A universal pharmacare program could happen, too. All it takes is the will to carry it out.

Canada has the dubious distinction of being the only country in the world with universal health care that doesn’t include prescription drugs.

Canada has been stuck in a time warp since the inception of health care. When Tommy Douglas envisioned a healthcare system in 1947, it included hospitals and then later, doctor’s services.

Other countries have moved on. New Zealand’s publicly funded system goes beyond hospital and physician care to include long-term care, mental health, physical therapy and prescription drugs.

While we like to boast of our healthcare system compared to our neighbours to the south, in reality ours is just good enough. Canada is stuck in “paradigm freeze” — good enough to prevent any major change or improvement.

The pandemic can shake us from our stupor and awaken us to the fact that a universal pharmacy program is cheaper for all, not just in the bargaining power of negotiating drug prices but in reduced healthcare costs resulting from a healthier population.

Another lesson learned was how rapid we can achieve, essentially, a basic universal wage. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) was distributed virtually overnight.

CERB has been replaced with other programs but with the political will to make it happen, Canada could have a basic universal wage.

A reduction in poverty through a basic income could improve health. The connection is deep, say Drs. Nadine Caron and Danielle Martin:

“But, perhaps surprisingly, the experiment [CERB] that may have had the biggest impact on health during COVID-19 didn’t take place in the healthcare system at all.” (The Walrus, Jan/Feb, 2021)

The connection between finances and health is well studied. Between 1993 and 2014 in Ontario, for example, residents of the poorest areas were more than twice as likely to die from a preventable cause as those living in the wealthier neighbourhoods.

Another lesson learned was from the fewer diagnostics done during the pandemic.

On the negative side, cancelled tests meant that diseases went undetected. The B.C. Cancer agency estimates that 250 British Columbians unknowingly had silent cancers go undiagnosed as their screening mammograms, colonoscopies, and pap smears were cancelled in just the first six weeks of the pandemic.

On the positive side, many tests routinely done may be unnecessary. If all those tests are so important, why aren’t they done uniformly across Canada? Chris Simpson, a cardiologist and former president of the Canadian Medical Association, wonders:

“Why do patients in one region get these tests and procedures at higher rates than other regions?”

The simple answer may be that, like prescriptions, doctors like to order tests so as to be seen to be doing something towards patient care. All those tests may not be the best use of resources.

Canadians can be proud for pulling together during this crisis. Let’s not forget what we can accomplish.

Canada’s housing agency tries to slow the exodus from big cities

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) is attempting to curb the outflow from big cities.

iamge: HuffPost Canada

Toronto saw a net loss of 50,375 last year as people moved to surrounding small cities; places such as Oshawa where the population increased by 2.1 per cent according.

Municipalities around Montreal also experienced growth with Farnham seeing an increase of 5.2 per cent.

People are migrating out of Vancouver to small Interior cities, as well. In Kamloops, home sales totalled 3,044 units last year, up 6.4 per cent from 2019. Sales were brisk with homes on the market just of 2.6 months on average, compared to 5.8 months the previous year.

The pandemic has resulted in millions of new workers from home. As of December, 2020, 4.8 million Canadians worked from home. For 2.8 million of those, working from home was a new experience.

The influx of highly successful, mid-career professionals and knowledge workers has an effect on the character and culture of a small city. On the plus side, professionals have more to spend and support the arts making small cities more vibrant. Conversely, they drive the price of houses up making them less affordable for low-income wage earners.

CMHC, a Crown Corporation responsible for affordable housing, is promoting big cities. In a two-page ad in The Walrus magazine, they point to the advantages of living in denser communities:

“CMHC is also increasingly recognizing that intensification, or creating denser communities, can play a positive role in addressing not only housing affordability but other challenges — such as access to services, health status, and climate change — that factor into where people choose to live.”

Part of the appeal in moving out of a big city, it seems, is the seemingly lower rates of COVID-19 infection. But most infections in big cities have been among those working in high contact jobs, not home-work environments. And the Kamloops region is now experiencing a spike in infections.

It might seem like commute times are less in smaller cities but Vancouver isn’t much different than Kamloops. In Vancouver, the average commute time by car was 26 minutes last year. While I don’t have averages for Kamloops, most drivers had a commute time of 15 to 29 minutes according to Statistics Canada. And fifteen per cent of Kamloops drivers had commute times longer than 30 minutes.

Big cities attract medical talent to specialized clinics, making health services superior in dense urban centres. Michel Tremblay, VP at CMHC says:  “You simply can’t offer the same level of service in smaller centres; it is just not economically justifiable,”

Everyday needs such as groceries, libraries, and community support services are not only more numerous and varied in a big city, but also easier to get to by walking, cycling, or public transit. People prefer to go on foot, which is the basis for an inherently healthy, active approach to living, CMHC argues.

Personally, I’m not convinced. Despite the disadvantages of living in small cities, Kamloops was a big draw for me when I moved to here from Calgary. I like the slower pace of life and living close to nature.

But I wonder what motivates CMHC, a housing agency, to promote big cities? Is it because they are worried about a collapse in big city housing markets where they insure the mortgages?

Trump’s big-tent coalition of the deluded

President Trump has assembled a ragtag rabble of misfits into “Trump’s Army”.

Trump’s Army storms the U.S.Capital. Image: Los Angles Times

The disgraced president was able to unite marginalized groups in a way no other president has done. Believers in alien abductions, the Deep State, QAnon, the Proud Boys and the Illuminati all found a home in the White House.

Trump brought those on the fringes of society to prominence. Not only did he elevate these groups, he embodied their alternate reality. He epitomized a deranged mentality.

Political commentators struggled with Trump’s brand of leadership at first, calling it populism –an appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. It’s now clear that Trump’s leadership defies historical labels.

I could never figure out whether President Trump was delusional or a liar. Did he really believe the untruths he was telling or was he purposely telling untruths? Now I realize that the truth doesn’t matter. What seems important to me –whether something is true or not- is inconsequential. For Trump’s Army, the truth is a trifling matter of little importance.

It’s a rare moment in American history when an alternate reality has gripped the nation in a big-tent coalition of the deluded.

Trump’s Army is nowhere on the political spectrum of left and right. Sure, Republicans were seduced by visions of power but right-wing issues such as abortion, small government, low taxes were not key to Trump’s win. Delusion was the key to his success.

The alternate reality of Trump’s Army is outside the material world. It consists of far-right conspiracies such as QAnon which alleges a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against President Donald Trump. It proposes that Wayfair Furniture (a real company) was involved in a sex-trafficking ring involving children.

Antifa is a convenient straw man. Trump set up Antifa as a dangerous organization with the intention of defeating it. He can revel in the glory of defeating something that never really existed.

Illusions will die hard in the Republican Party.

After Trump’s Army invaded the Washington Capital last Wednesday, some Republicans had trouble processing it. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin was convinced that Antifa infiltrated the march. She went on Fox News and said “A lot of it is the Antifa folks.” Palin said she had seen some “pictures” that convinced her.

The big tent of fringe groups is fundamentally unstable. Eventually, real events happen that can only be dealt with people with a grip on reality.

The only way Republicans can gain control of the White House is by returning to their appeal to the right end of the political spectrum. By appealing to Trumps’ Army, Republicans risk losing the White House again.

Trump’s Army still poses a real danger.

An internal FBI bulletin warned that more violence is being planned: “Armed protests are being planned at all 50 state capitols from 16 January through at least 20 January, and at the U.S. Capitol from 17 January through 20 January,”

If Republicans condemn Trump’s Army, they risk losing the fringe element. Good riddance, I say. If they continue to feed the Army’s mania, they risk sending America into a civil war that pits the zombie-like Trump’s Army against rational citizens.

The young have sacrificed much during the pandemic with little to show

Young Canadians have been blamed for being irresponsible during the pandemic for going to parties and bars. But there’s more hype than truth to these accusations. The deadly virus has been spread by people of all walks of life.

BLM demonstration Kamloops. Image: CFJC Today

Young people are sacrificing the opportunities of a lifetime. This is a time to build professional networks for future careers. Relationships have been delayed at a time that they are looking for lifetime partners. Families are being put off for better times.

As an older person, the sacrifices I make are minimal –stay home and watch Netflix. Sure, I miss going to shows, bars and restaurants but these can hardly be characterized as sacrifices compared to what young people endure.

Government response has been geared to protecting the assets of older people, particularly wealthy old people. When stocks crashed in the self-induced pandemic recession, central banks pumped money into markets to preserve share worth and property values.

Economic relief is geared toward protecting the wealth and income of the top 10 per cent in society -those with homes, accumulated wealth and a defined-benefit pension- not for young people.

Young people have been hard hit with job losses and increased exposure to the virus. They’re more likely to live in shared accommodation and work in jobs that require a high degree of face-to-face contact. They are more likely to rely on public transit. And when they work in office buildings, it’s in relatively cramped conditions.

But what is clear is that if governments are determined to “return to normal,” the bulk of new infections will likely occur among young people for the simple reason that they inevitably engage in more social interaction than older people.

Despite receiving an unfair share of the blame for spreading COVID-19, young people have received little credit for leading protests against injustice.

Many young people are deeply idealistic, calling for such things as democracy, racial equality, climate action, human rights and justice in policing.

In Kamloops last summer, young people organized a protest in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. They called it BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) to reflect the overall injustice of racism.

The Tiny House Warriors in Kamloops, led by Indigenous youth, have protested the building of the Trans Mountain pipeline on unceded Secwepemc Territory.

The Idle No More movement, founded in 2012 by Indigenous youth, was in reaction to the Harper government’s removal of protections for forests and waterways in Bill C-45.

“Let’s be brutally frank here,” says John Rapley, political economist at the University of Cambridge, “As a disproportionate number of elderly people died, young people might actually face improved economic prospects.”

Young people have the most to gain when this pandemic sweeps the globe. Older people are more likely to die from COVID-19, which could improve the economic prospects of the young; fewer people drawing from pension plans, more houses on the market which would drop the price.

Young people have borne, and continue to bear, the brunt of isolated social interactions. They lead movements against racism, brutality and colonialism with little appreciation for their efforts.

The death and rebirth of the sun at Christmas is a solemn occasion

Christmas is a time of wonder; a time for festivity and lights; a time for gathering together with friends and family in celebration. In the shelter of our warm houses, the dwindling days of winter are a curiosity –if noticed at all.

image: The Goddess & and the Greenman

But for many ancient cultures, the death and rebirth of the sun was not cause for celebration. The sun represented life itself. Without the sun, crops did not grow and you could starve. Livestock were slaughtered, not for celebration but because there wasn’t enough silage to feed them through the winter. The emergence of the sun from the winter solstice gave hope that food supplies would last until new crops could be planted.

In contrast, for the ancient Romans the winter solstice had a carnival-like atmosphere with banquets, gift-giving and partying. It was a time to honour the god of plenty, Saturn.

I used dread Christmas because of that carnival atmosphere: the unlikely birthday of Jesus, the crass commercialization. Now I anticipate Christmas because of its connection with the natural cycles of the Earth.

As a youth, I belonged to a religion that did not celebrate Christmas because of its pagan origins. It was really awkward for me when all my school friends were looking forward to the gifts they would receive and the celebrations. Meanwhile, no lights at our house, no Christmas tree, no gifts.

Christmas celebrations, like birthdays, were disapproved by our religion; we were made to feel guilty if we attended them. It put a wedge between our family and our extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. Because these get-togethers were one of the rare times we could get together, my mom and dad and I would attend conflicted, under a dark cloud of guilt. The tension so palpable that mom would throw up.

Now I find comfort in the shortening days. It’s like Mother Nature is pulling a blanket over the land and whispering: “Hush, hush, it’s alright. Go to sleep now.”

The waning and waxing sun also reminds me a partial solar eclipse in slow motion. It has a disturbing effect on those viewing it. Total eclipses have a profound effect on people, some breaking down in tears at the spectacle.

Not everyone finds comfort in the shortening days. Many are affected by Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression in the winter months. For them, the seasonal funk of the “winter blues” is no cause for celebration.

If COVID was a religion, it would certainly disapprove of Christmas. As a puritanical religion, COVID would frown on gatherings. COVID promotes -without any support- solemn, solitary contemplation; a time to give thanks you are still alive. COVID tells us not to celebrate at a time when we most need it. Large family gatherings are taboo. To gather together generates guilt at the risk we put to ourselves and our loved ones.

While we may not be overtly conscious of the winter solstice, it has a deep visceral effect on our psyche. At a gut level, it generates awe and alarm, sobriety and giddiness, hope and fear.

Prohibition of drugs was a mistake but decriminalization will not stop deaths

How many more people have to die because of a half-baked idea from a century ago?

It all started at the turn of the twentieth century when concoctions of opium were commonly found in medicine chests to treat toothaches, diarrhoea, and coughs. Before antibiotics, doctors used opium to treat diseases such as dysentery, cholera, and tuberculosis.

Many of these concoctions, such as Laudanum, were highly addictive.

laudanum ad in Sears. image: 12 tomatoes

There were two paths that governments could have taken. One would have been to control the potency and purity of opium and sell it through licensed outlets. The other was to make opium illegal.

The choice to make opium illegal was political and racist.

Prime Minister Laurier was looking for his fourth majority in a row in 1908. He heard of the “race riots” in Vancouver and sent his minister of labour, William Lyon Mackenzie King, to investigate.

King found resentment and anger towards Chinese workers. They had been brought to British Columbia to build the Trans Canada railway. With the railway complete and Chinese workers unemployed, white Canadians claimed that they were taking jobs away.

Also, Chinese Canadians were demonized for leading good, white Canadian women astray in “opium dens.” The Chinese were the perfect scapegoats: too many, too shady. Laurier played the race card, was returned to power, and passed the Opium Act in 1908.

The prohibition of substances, such as alcohol, has been a failure ever since.

Drug addiction is a serious problem but it is not criminal. The Opium Act placed the possession of opium in the same category of criminal acts as murder and rape.

Criminal acts are the most serious offenses against society. But drug abuse is an offence against an individual, not society. While drug pushers have bad intentions, drug users don’t intend to do anything criminal.

The state is to blame for not controlling the purity and potency of drugs made available. If not in a fit of moral outrage and attempt to control behaviour that mainly affects personal choice, governments would have made the rational choice to leave drugs legal.

The government’s impulse to control behaviour by making drug use criminal is misguided. Throwing people in jail for trying to ease their emotional or physical pain is a mistake.

So here we are a century later with these anachronistic drug laws. What are we to do?

Vancouver is asking the federal government to approve a plan to decriminalize simple possession of illicit drugs in the city. Mayor Kennedy Stewart said:

“Personal possession and use of drugs is not a criminal justice issue; it is a health issue,” said Stewart. “It is time to end the stigma around substance use, help connect more of our neighbours to health care, and save lives.”

But decriminalization does not make drugs legal. It does not guarantee the purity and potency of drugs, nor does it make them available from licensed vendors. Decriminalization simply makes the offence of drug possession less serious. The drugs are still as deadly.

It was a mistake to make drugs illegal in the first place. It’s a mistake we are living with today. This year, Kamloops has had the highest number of deaths from drug overdoses on record: double the 25 deaths recorded in 2019. And the year’s grim tally is not yet complete.