David Borden, Executive
Director, [email protected]
The Vancouver, British Columbia,
police department took the unusually forthright step of officially stating
they are turning a blind eye to drug use in certain circumstances.
Specifically, police will no longer show up to overdose calls if the situation
is one that can be handled by paramedics. The reason for the policy,
which the department explained has been unofficial procedure for some time,
is that police presence tends to make drug users fearful they could be
arrested, and hence less likely to call for help and more likely to wait
before calling. And that increases the chances that the victim of
the overdose will die, when help could have prevented it.
The policy is an example
of what is called "harm reduction" -- programs, policies and practices
that acknowledge the reality that drug use is here and is not about to
go away. Harm reduction seeks to save lives, reduce the spread of
diseases and generally improve the lives and health of drug users -- whether
they are about to stop using or not.
In the context of the drug
war, much of the harm being abated stems not only from the drugs, but also
from the policies. This is a less controversial statement than it
might seem on the surface. For example, in 1997 a group of "middle-ground"
academics, led by UCLA professor Mark Kleiman, published a statement of
principles under the auspices of the Federation of American Scientists
that explicitly makes this point. Principle three in the statement
argues that "[d]amage [from drugs] can be reduced by shrinking the extent
of drug abuse as well as by reducing the harm incident to any given level
of drug consumption." It's not just all-out legalizers like me who
argue this point; it's most if not all thinking observers of drug policy.
The police presence/overdose
nexus is a fairly spectacular if quiet example of unintended consequences
in the drug war. It's key to note that Vancouver didn't decide to
have police go to the scene of overdose calls to help out or just in case,
but without making arrests -- that wasn't enough. The police in most
cases just don't go. Because their mere presence, even if benign,
is enough to scare the people who need to make the phone calls into not
making them. Vancouver's police are not showing up in these situations
at all -- because they understand that just by showing up, they indirectly
cause people to die -- even if all they intend to do when they get there
What an incredible illustration
of just how extreme a response to drug use prohibition is -- the mere presence
of prohibition's enforcers in certain situations causes death. It's
good the officials in Vancouver have taken this thoughtful step.
But shouldn't we end prohibition itself, rather than merely do partial
fixes that leave the core harms untouched? There's a widespread understanding
that legalization would effectively constitute large scale harm reduction,
reflexive fears of the opposite held by many notwithstanding.
In the meantime, kudos to
Vancouver's police leaders who are dispassionate enough to recognize this
and confident enough to act on it and acknowledge doing so in writing.
And to the harm reductionists everywhere, laboring every day to rescue
the unfortunate ones caught up in the mad jaws of destruction our laws
-- END --
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