Sunday, March 25, 2007

Why not a drug policy just like our anti-smoking efforts?

What if we treated other problem drugs like tobacco?
The province’s latest move to ban smoking in enclosed public spaces was a reminder of how successful we’ve been in dealing with tobacco use.
Watch an old movie and everybody is smoking. Even 20 years ago, people smoked at work, in bars. The people who asked for the non-smoking rooms in hotels were kind of weird and often disappointed.
Smoking was still cool and socially acceptable.
But we decided smoking was bad - addictive, gives you cancer and a brace of other illnesses.
Taxes made it more and more expensive, until it got hard to deny you were hooked. Not many people would happily spend $60 a week unless there was addiction involved.
Life insurance cost more. You couldn’t smoke at work. Restaurant smoking areas kept shrinking. People started to talk more and more about the fact that 40 per cent of hospitalizations are smoking-related.
And then, finally, there was another big shift. Smoking became largely a mark of loserdom. Not entirely - tautly wounded artists and blues performers still get away with it. But broadly, smokers are people you would be less likely to hire.
In a relatively short time, we took a deadly drug that was almost completely accepted, used by a majority of adults and highly addictive, and slashed its use.
We could have made tobacco illegal, like drugs, 20 years ago. But we chose a different approach - managed use, with education and financial penalties to decrease smoking.
And it’s worked quite well.
So why not try the same approach with drugs, or at least some of them?
What if we say heroin and cocaine are like tobacco - things we really wish people wouldn’t use, but that we still accept some probably will.
Under that approach we would commit a lot of resources to making sure people didn’t start, as we did with smoking. We’d target kids, but also vulnerable adults.
We’d make a big effort to help people quit.
And for people who wanted to keep using, we would prescribe heroin or cocaine or working substitutes they could pick up at a clinic. (The current half-hearted, restrictive methadone program really doesn’t count.)
What are the downsides? It feels wrong to provide a drug like cocaine to people, for one thing. You could argue that others - young people - might see the practice as condoning drug use. (Though we’ve managed to allow controlled sale of tobacco products while condemning its use.)
Against those are negatives, look at what we would gain.
The people being prescribed drugs wouldn’t have to stealing to get the money to buy them. Police estimate up to 90-per-cent of break-ins and thefts are drug-related.
Organized criminals would lose a huge market. There would still be demand, but not enough to make the business so attractive.
Instead of spending their days and nights scrambling for money and drugs, users would have time to think about work and developing more stable lives.
Based on similar efforts in other countries, a significant number would seek treatment. During a prescribed heroin trial in Switzerland, not only did crime by users plummet but about seven per cent quit during their time in the program.
Since people wouldn’t be using in alleys and dodgey settings, we’d save a fortune in health costs.
People with both mental health problems and addictions would get a chance to reduce the chaos their lives and deal with their mental illness.
And all the while we’d follow the path set by the anti-smoking campaign.
About 55 per cent of adults smoked in 1965, compaed witrh 15 per cent in B.C. today. Only about two per cent of Canadians are heroin and cocaine users. If we could make the same relative gains, the number of addicts would be tiny.
That’s a long list of benefits, with few costs.
Yet we push on with tactics and strategies that have failed to deal with prohibited substances for almost a century. We fight to reduce supply, unsuccessfully, and create crime and chaos and costs.
For whatever reason, we tried something different with tobacco. Maybe the big companies had too much clout for prohibition to be tried, or there were just too many smokers. But we didn’t ban cigarettes or arrest people. We worked on reducing demand.
And it worked. Why not for other drugs?

B.C. making mixed headlines in the U.S.

It’s been a big month for B.C. in the U.S. media, but the messages have probably been confusing for any Americans actually paying attention.
Premier Gordon Campbell zipped down to California for a meeting with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that was mostly a good news story. Hands across the border to battle greenhouse gases and all that. It even made the Washington Post, admittedly back on Page A18, but still good publicity for the province.
But at almost the same time, B.C. was being also portrayed as the environmental bad guy threatening an important Montana river. Plans for a coal mine in the Kootenays near the U.S. border are once again under fire.
And for the first time, the Bush administration is backing the complaints. The State Department wrote to B.C. last month putting its concerns about the mine on the record.
We’re about four years in to this long squabble with Montana over plans for a coal mine on our side of the border, but in the headwaters of the state’s Flathead River.
Partly, the mine’s problems are just collateral damage in the ongoing battle between environmentalists and the mining and energy industries within the state. Montana has had some bad experiences, especially with poorly regulated coalbed methane wells. There’s a lot of sensitivity about any development.
B.C. has made an effort to stay on the right side of the issue. The province even cancelled Cline Mining’s rights to develop one coal mine close to the border.
But Cline has another property, about 30 kms from the border, and it wants to go ahead with a relatively small open-pit coal mine. The province, while citing the need for environmental studies, seems too enthusiastic about the mine for Montana.
So there’s been some testy exchanges back and forth. The noisiest came when MLA Bill Bennett even got into a heated debate with Montana Senator Max “Blame Canada” Baucus in Fernie over the project. Gov. Brian Schweitzer is also an opponent.
And now the Montana crew have their federal government onside, at least in a modest way. The State Department have written to B.C. complaining that Cline proposed just north of Glacier National Park could cause "significant adverse environmental effects."
The letter is the mildest of White House responses to the political pressure from Montana.
Still, the game is afoot. And coal mines are not exactly seen in a favourable light right now. The B.C. government will likely have to decide if this mine is worth a fight with some pretty savvy opponents.
Especially when a fight over a coal mine against an earnest group of Montana environmentalists, backed by all their mainstream politicians, would sabotage the whole Schwarzenegger thing.
The charming bodybuilder-actor-governor will be up in B.C. in a few weeks to talk with Campbell about climate change. The linkage with Arnie is useful. As Campbell notes, B.C. as a market of four million people can’t bring much pressure for more fuel-efficient vehicles. Aligning with California, with 36 million people, gives the government some influence.
And politically it never hurts to be seen with a movie star.
Though the whole Campbell-Schwarzenegger meeting got a slightly different play in the U.S.
The Washington Post, for example characterized Campbell as the premier who “wanted to bring coal-burning plants and offshore oil rigs to this lush province.”
His new green leanings were stunning, the newspaper said, and owed a big debt to Arnie.
“Campbell sought advice from Schwarzenegger, who had reversed his own sagging political fortunes by championing some of the toughest environmental regulations in the United States,” the Washington Post reported. “Schwarzenegger dispatched his chief environmental adviser, Terry Tamminen, to Victoria, B.C., where he worked quietly with Campbell's staff to draft a far-reaching plan.”
Take the two stories together and you get an important reminder. We are a bit player in the dramas the American politicians script for themselves. We - our politicians - are either leaning on the action hero for help or plotting to destroy a wild river.
It’s tough to make it to the end of the movie when you’re not the star.
Footnote: Meanwhile, a popular San Francisco column described Schwarzenegger’s Canadian connection as boring but necessary to promote trade. "There are sexier places,'' a unnamed member of “Arnold's Team Canada” was quoted. "But there is a ton of money involved -- and we absolutely have to go.''