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Harm reduction and the "War on Drugs"

part of Hastings

Crane on Hastings I took this weeks ago and liked the geometry, but the picture was still a little on the boring side. So I abandoned photointegrity and jammed the PhotoShop controls all the way over. Which, among other things, covers up the collateral damage from the War on Drugs. Tall slender crane on Hastings Street, Vancouver

This part of Hastings Street is infested with junkies and other walking wounded. A guy stopping in the middle of the street to take pictures of cranes is hardly noticeable. I wrote an essay about this place and the drugs and the consequences back in 2003, and this picture reminded me of it, and I think it’s still material.

On Drugs Lesson: Drugs Differ We already treat different drugs differently; alcohol is treated differently from tobacco is treated differently from heroin. This makes all sorts of sense, except for everything that's outside the law is put into one big basket, and that's just silly.

My own personal opinions:

  • As to uppers of all forms (coke/crack/meth, whatever), “speed kills”, just like it did in the sixties. I've had a few druggie friends, and the only ones who died or destroyed their lives on illegal drugs were in this camp, and virtually everyone I've ever known in this camp died or destroyed their life. The only sane strategy is all-fronts attack.
  • Heroin is obviously insanely addictive, but unlike a lot of other drugs, people don't get sick and die just from the heroin - it's from the HIV on the needle, or the life of crime to stay high. A lot of smart people seem to be saying that the sanest thing you can do with junkies is keep them alive and relatively healthy, and then over the years, quite a few of them eventually shake it. So maybe there's something to be said for prescription and supervised-injection in the European style.
  • As for cannabis, just give up. It's just not that damaging (particularly with the modern varieties that reduce the quantity of highly-carcinogenic smoke to nearly nothing), and the notion of a “gateway drug” is just silly, and it's allowing a lot of very evil people to get very rich.

Legalize it, regulate it, collect the tax dollars, and free up the cops to go after the real problem drugs (see above).

Lesson: Listen to William Burroughs [snip] ... I keep thinking about a lesson William Burroughs taught in Naked Lunch, a revolting, depraved, nearly-impossible-to-read book that I can't recommend but I'm glad I read.

Burroughs asks us to consider the narcotics supply chain: the farmer sells to the aggregator, who sells to the importer, who sells to Mr. Big, who sells to Mr. Medium, who sells to the street dealer, who sells to the junkie. The cops have this idea that busting dealers is good, and busting Mr. Medium is better, and busting Mr. Big is terrific, and if we could go and redirect the farmers' energies that would be ideal.

Burroughs points out that the truth is more or less exactly the opposite: every piece of the chain - every piece of the chain - is replaceable, and given the money to be made, will be replaced.

Except the junkie. Make the junkie go away and the money goes away and the chain dries up. So, maybe the Vancouver cops are onto something; let's just make it real hard to be a junkie and try to disrupt the system from the bottom up.

... which is not very different from what I said before. The problem goes away if the end-consumer goes away.

Our current/unending "War on Drugs" is not turning up any clear benefits. Clearly - thirty-odd years on - the current tactics are are not winning this "war". When you aren't winning, after all this time - it is time to try another approach.

First, we need to distinguish "hard" life-destroying drugs and "soft" relatively harmless drugs. We've known for decades that marijuana is about as harmful as tobacco and alcohol. (Frankly I wonder how money went into political coffers from tobacco and alcohol businesses to keep marijuana illegal). Take your pick of approaches - but whatever restrictions you choose should be similar based on the actual effects and side-effects.

The nonsense about marijuana as a "gateway" drug ... this is exactly as true as tobacco and alcohol as "gateway" drugs. Stick your head into an NA or AA meeting and you will find a pack of smokers. Clearly the folks who have problems with addiction have problems with the whole suite - and their starting point on the downward path was most likely tobacco and alcohol.

To look at things from an entirely different perspective, look at things like a parent who cares about their kids. Look at a group of kids and figure that a large portion will try things we'd rather they didn't - and more likely than not at least one of your kids is in this group. We care a lot about the quality and safety of the things we consume. Balance carefully the risks - is it better that "soft" drugs be illegal, or better the substance our kids consume is as safe as possible? Take it for granted that the folks making drugs illegally are not overly concerned if a few of their customers die.

Kill the illegal distribution chain for "soft" drugs and you get safer products, more taxes collected, lower prices ... and a likely lot less crime.

The "War on Drugs" has gone on for a long time. For the average citizen the "war" has proved expensive and is at best a stalemate. For the "Mr. Big" in the illegal distribution chain the status-quo is very, very profitable. I wonder how much money flows from "Mr. Big" into politics with the aim to keep things as they are?