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.

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