Vancouver's safe injection site -- a facility where users can inject in safety from police arrest and the street's many other ardors, with access to public health services -- is a welcome first of its kind on the continent. But supporters have rightly pointed out dangers built into the situation that could threaten its success and continuation even before it has proved itself:
Health Canada has overregulated the project, which risks alienating or frightening its intended clients away. Vancouver police have promised a lot of attention -- they say they want to make it work, and perhaps they do -- but early comments indicate a less than complete understanding. And any problem or incident with the site or program -- or anything that media or political opponents can misrepresent as such -- could potentially bring the whole thing down, as could a shift in the city's, province's or nation's future political landscape.
One more reason, then, not to stop with the safe injection site. Harm reduction programs, partial reforms to sentencing or drug policy, all of these are deeply vulnerable to sudden attack and setbacks, so long as drugs themselves remain illegal. In 1970, federal mandatory minimum sentences in the form of the Boggs Laws were repealed through bipartisan consensus, only to abruptly come back 16 years later after a college basketball star overdosed on cocaine. Britain's successful heroin maintenance programs, including the famous Liverpool clinic reported on by Sixty Minutes, ended when a conservative administration decided not to fund them in a country where health services are provided by the federal government. A study would easily find copious examples of positive change turned back, at all levels of government.
In a society frightened by drugs and convinced that prohibition is the way to handle them, progress is unstable. There are too many vested interests, too many politicians, too many well meaning but frightened people too ready to overreact, too many ways that drugs and drug problems can be misunderstood or taken out of context or proportion. The only politically, reasonably stable situation in drug policy reform will be one in which drugs are legal and government is not expected to hunt down, punish and control its sellers and users beyond some reasonable level of regulation; and in which people understand intuitively that legalization was a necessary response to the failure of drug prohibition, as with the legalization of alcohol in the 1930s.
This doesn't mean, of course, that all the good partial changes being worked on shouldn't be. Medical marijuana, sentencing reform, harm reduction, these and many other efforts are helping to save lives and end injustice, and are slowly setting drug politics on a better track. But if it stops there; if the end point of the encouraging developments of the past 10 years is a "kinder, gentler" version of prohibition, but still prohibition, then a future return to the drug war and the appalling suffering and violence attending its current form will be inevitable.
One more reason, then, not to stop at a "kinder, gentler" prohibition. The not-so-noble, 90-year experiment must end, and end in full.