Editorial: Unintended Consequences 6/23/06

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David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected]

David Borden
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 is help.

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 have created.

-- END --
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Issue #441 -- 6/23/06

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Editorial: Unintended Consequences | Feature: Move to Block DEA Medical Marijuana Raids Heads for House Floor Vote Next Week | Feature: Look for More No-Knock Drug Raids, More Collateral Damage in Wake of Supreme Court Ruling, Experts Warn | DRCNet Review Essay: Over the Transom -- Modern Day Pamphleteers Address the Drug War | Offer and Appeal: Important New Legalization Video and Drug War Facts Book Available | Book Offer: Burning Rainbow Farm: How a Stoner Utopia Went up in Smoke | Feature: Move to Block DEA Medical Marijuana Raids Heads for House Floor Vote Next Week Alert: Major Medical Marijuana Vote in Congress Next Week! | Feedback: Do You Read Drug War Chronicle? | Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories | Marijuana: West Hollywood Passes "Lowest Priority" Resolution | Drugged Driving: Michigan Supreme Court Upholds State DUID Law -- Now You Don't Even Have to Be High to Get Busted | Canada: In Harm Reduction Bid, Vancouver Police to Stay Away From Overdose Calls | Europe: Scottish Drug Czar Says Drug War Is Lost, Causes Big To-Do | Africa: Nigerian Narcs in Losing Battle with Marijuana Farmers | Latin America: Venezuela-Funded Coca Factory Opens in Bolivia | Medical Marijuana: National Multiple Sclerosis Society to Fund Study | Web Scan: Len Bias, UN Coca Survey, Oaksterdam News | Weekly: This Week in History | Weekly: The Reformer's Calendar

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