Pubdate: Sun, 30 Aug 2009
Source: Victoria Times-Colonist (CN BC)
Copyright: 2009 Times Colonist
Author: Colby Cosh, Times Colonist
Note: Colby Cosh is a blogger and columnist for the National Post.
Bookmark: (Harm Reduction)


Say, are we still having that debate over whether the United States
constitutes an empire? I remember the idea seeming controversial a few
years back. In 2009, the whole idea of disagreeing with it seems quaint.

But maybe things will look different in a few years. Empires do not
rise and fall; they expand and contract, relax and relent. In an
extraordinary turn of events, Caesar has temporarily turned a blind
eye to the policing of morals in the provinces, allowing startling
drug reforms in two major "partner" states.

This month, the Mexican government decriminalized the possession of
very small amounts of illicit drugs. Not just marijuana, which is
subject to a possession limit of five grams, but the whole kaboodle:
Cocaine, methamphetamine, LSD, even heroin.

In general the U. S. media treated this as a counter-intuitive move
made in the midst of a full-scale war between drug cartels and the
Mexican state.

But it is precisely the bloodiness of that war that has Mexico moving
away from ideological prohibitionism.

The idea is to cut into demand by treating addicts as potential
treatment clients rather than criminals, to fight corruption among the
police by taking away one of their major tools for shaking down the
poor and marginalized and to concentrate resources on organized crime.

This is, of course, a form of centralized social planning just as much
as total prohibition is. Even a borderline anarchist-libertarian (like
me) might well question whether it will accomplish the criteria of
social peace and harm reduction by which it will be judged; Cato
Institute fellow and Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron, for one, worries
that decriminalization will get the blame if intensified supply-side
enforcement leads to more violence.

But the Portuguese model on which the Mexican reform is based, which
saw the adoption of Europe's most liberal drug laws in 2001, has been
successful in all the ways that most of us would consider important,
particularly in reducing the spread of HIV and exposure to drugs
amongst teenagers.

One feels that what's needed above all else right now, when it comes
to drugs, is a little openness and sincerity. The single worst effect
of criminalizing drug possession is to make it harder for everyone to
talk about drugs. It has created a world (although things have changed
a lot in the last 20 years) where most everyone has taken a bong hit
at one time or another, but no one wants to admit it, whether it's to
their kids or to co-workers or in the newspaper.

And that, in turn, has made it harder to make the core argument that
it is none of the state's business what you put in your body. (Doing
so inevitably comes off as sounding like a coded apology for past

But in some places it is being made anyway. On Tuesday the Supreme
Court of Argentina reversed the conviction of a 19-year-old caught
with two grams of pot and decriminalized the possession of drugs for
personal consumption. The government anticipated the ruling and says
it is content to abide by it; meanwhile, other Latin states, including
Brazil, are talking about following suit. Crucial to the logic of the
court's decision was an article in the Argentine constitution that
states, "The private actions of men which in no way offend public
order or morality, nor injure a third party, are only reserved to God
and are exempted from the authority of judges."

It's a sentiment one might have expected to hear coming from the U.S.,
at one time. President Barack Obama has been a disappointment to the
harm-reduction crowd when it comes to domestic drug reform, but the
rapid pace of change in the Latin world shows that the State
Department is no longer imposing its will there.

Whether it's because Washington has more urgent priorities like saving
the American economy from reverting to the Stone Age, or just because
the Bush administration's cadre of drug warriors is gone, American
satellites seem to find themselves free to go their own way, perhaps
only for a brief moment.

Canadians who have argued that the adoption of a harm-reduction
approach here would jeopardize our trade relationship with the U.S.
can therefore pipe down for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, we
greet the occasion with a law-and-order he-man Conservative government
in place -- one which, whatever its virtues when it comes to crimes
that have victims, is full of people like Peter van Loan, Rob
Nicholson and Tony Clement, and plenty of others who are about as
likely to give birth to a muskox on the steps of Parliament as they
are to support rational drug policy. From that standpoint, our timing
sorta stinks.
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