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.

Three profiles of opioid users

The fish-bowl lives of drug users on the streets of downtown East Vancouver provides an easy, but distorted, window to drug use. That picture is as distorted now as it was 139 years ago when B.C.’s second premier, Amor De Cosmos, headed a commission to investigate opium use.

The window to most drug overdose deaths is closed. Typical victims are single men, in the prime of their life, who die alone from opioids containing fentanyl according to a report from the BC Coroners Service released last Thursday.

Michael Strange. image: Globe and Mail

Even reports of typical deaths are somewhat distorted. For some opioid users, the drug is a godsend. Take the case of Michael Strange. He injured his back while working as a cameraman and found opioids to be the only treatment that provided relief.

“I’ve tried so many different things for my pain,” said Strange. “People say, ‘Have you tried acupuncture?’ Yeah. I’ve had two different kinds of laser therapy. I had doctors and friends say I had to try marijuana. I got the vaporizer and it did nothing for my pain (Globe and Mail, September 7, 2018).”

It wasn’t easy but Michael Strange finally found a doctor who would treat him. Many doctors were “running scared” because they didn’t want to be seen to be contributing to addiction. Now his pain specialist gives him a two-month prescription and before renewing, asks: “Michael, how are you? Are you OK with the drugs? Do you need more? Do you need less?”

Self-medication turned deadly for Chris Willie, a university lecturer with a PhD in environmental physiology from UBC Okanagan. He wrote memoirs about his recovery from fentanyl addiction but he died from an overdose before they were published. With the approval of his family, his memoirs were published in the September, 2018, edition of the Walrus. He describes his mental pain as a child and the calm he found in taking dangerous risks:

“I have never excelled at coping. I was that infant child who hammered his head on the ground when frustrated by anything at all. It must have been embarrassing to parent the son with the ever-present forehead scabs. Perhaps I found it soothing, because, thirty years later, I still find serenity in chaos and derive calm from risk. By fighting to live through near-death situations, I could find the high I needed to briefly escape the pain.”

Like Michael Strange, Emily Wharton lived a productive life with opiates. The twenty-year old opium smoker from Victoria, told a House of Commons Select Committee on Chinese Immigration of her use. The federal committee was initiated by John A. Macdonald in 1879 and headed by B.C.’s second premier, Amor De Cosmos (a.k.a. William Alexander Smith).

Back then, the stereotypical opium user was Chinese. They lured good white women into lives of depravity in opium dens. The real agenda of the committee was to rid Canada of Chinese immigrants.

Wharton’s testimony 139 years ago is recorded in Dan Malleck’s book, When Good Drugs Go Bad. She told the committee that she had been using opium for four years and suffered no ill effects. Wharton testified that opium’s “somnolence and complete rest” left her productive. Chinese men in opium dens treated her well and she objected to the characterization of the dens as depraved. She suggested that if the government legalized opium, “one need not have to come into such holes as this to smoke (p. 102).”

Medical-grade opioids are not the problem. The social stigma of drug use that drives users to overdose, and the lack of pain-treatment specialists, leads mostly young single men to self-medicate, and to die, alone.