Pubdate: Fri, 13 Apr 2012
Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)
Copyright: 2012 The Ottawa Citizen
Author: Dan Gardner


Many people hate the idea of clinics where people can inject illicit 
drugs under the supervision of nurses and counsellors. Others want 
them set up immediately. They include the University of Toronto 
researchers who recommended this week that supervised injection sites 
be opened in Toronto and Ottawa.

Which view is more popular varies from place to place. A recent Forum 
Research poll found that there was even considerable variation within 
the city of Toronto, with a strong majority of people (62 per cent) 
in the downtown core in favour, while people further out are just as 
strongly opposed.

That's life in a diverse country. Downtown Toronto isn't Scarborough. 
Ottawa isn't Cornwall. Alberta isn't Nova Scotia. Circumstances, 
opinions, and values all change down the road.

If we insist on applying public policies universally, that's a 
problem. We will never entirely erase our disagreements, no matter 
how much we talk, argue, and shout. And so, inevitably, when a policy 
is implemented, or blocked, people in some places will feel that 
people elsewhere have imposed their views on them.

Sometimes that's unavoidable. The Bank of Canada can only have one 
monetary policy, and, if it doesn't suit your local circumstances, 
tough. But there's far more room for decentralization and variation 
than we realize. We should make more use of it.

Consider the only safe injection site in the country, "Insite," 
located in Vancouver's bedraggled Downtown Eastside neighbourhood.

Before Insite opened its doors in 2003, popular opinion varied much 
as it does now in Toronto, with strong support in the downtown and 
opposition rising in the suburbs and beyond. If the municipal and 
provincial governments had insisted on a universal policy, they would 
have either denied downtown residents what they wanted or scattered 
clinics all over the map, in defiance of much local opinion. Instead, 
they did something modest and simple.

They opened one clinic in the downtown neighbourhood where support 
was strongest and need greatest. And they had scientists study the 
clinic's effects on drug users and the city.

In short, it was a local experiment with local support.

In the years that followed, Insite delivered impressive results that 
were reported in the world's leading peer-reviewed medical journals. 
And its support grew substantially, across the city and beyond.

It was a textbook demonstration of the wisdom of decentralization.

Provinces, cities, and neighbourhoods vehemently opposed to the 
policy did not have it thrust upon them. A neighbourhood that very 
much wanted the policy was not denied it. And, as a result, a 
valuable experiment was conducted, producing research which other 
jurisdictions can consult.

So local views were respected. An experiment was undertaken. And 
everyone learned. What's not to love?

Of course this argument is far from new. The phrase "laboratories of 
democracy" was coined in 1932, when United States Supreme Court 
justice Louis Brandeis noted that American federalism meant "a single 
courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory, 
and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the 
rest of the country."

And 11 years ago, two gentlemen wrote that decentralization would 
ensure that "the policies in all parts of Canada will better reflect 
local economies and local desires - and that cannot but lead to a 
stronger country." One of those gentlemen was conservative policy 
analyst Ken Boessenkool. The other was National Citizens Coalition 
president Stephen Harper.

Of course Prime Minister Stephen Harper tried very hard to close 
Insite and would have if the Supreme Court hadn't intervened, and 
that underscores a key problem.

We tend to think local control and experimentation is grand when we 
like what the locals propose to do, but not so much when we don't. 
This hypocrisy can even be seen in strong advocates of 
decentralization. Like Stephen Harper. Or, in the United States, the 
Republican party, which loudly and proudly supports the authority of 
states except when states make decisions (like Oregon's legalization 
of euthanasia) that offend Republicans.

Another problem is the sheer scale of our jurisdictions. We have 
provinces the size of European countries and amalgamated cities that 
sprawl across the map. Each may be closer to "local" than the federal 
government, but they're still a long way from your neighbourhood.

And then there's the Constitution. It doesn't even recognize cities. 
And it gives power over the criminal law - which is connected to so 
many values-laden decisions - to the federal government.

But these difficulties are not insurmountable. As was done with 
Insite, the federal government can grant exemptions from the criminal 
law in some cases.

Discretionary law enforcement can also make room for local 
experimentation, provided the discretion is exercised formally and 
openly. (That last bit is critical. Discretionary law enforcement is 
actually far more common than people realize - there are cafes in 
Toronto where marijuana is openly sold and smoked, for example - but 
it's usually done with a wink and a nod. That's no basis for 
well-constructed, publicly supported, supervised policy experiments.)

But, most of all, we have to collectively accept the idea that local 
is better, even when we don't happen to like what those people over 
there want to do.

We can start with prostitution. Key laws have been tossed by the 
courts. And good riddance. They were an incoherent mess. But what 
will we replace them with?

It's ludicrous to think we can find one answer to prostitution that 
will satisfy the circumstances, opinions, and values coast to coast. 
So let's decentralize: The federal and provincial governments should 
sit down with municipalities to discuss policy frameworks that would 
allow cities to take the lead and innovate.

And supervised injection sites? Thanks to Insite, the discussion is 
focused at the city level. That's good. But when we say "should this 
be in Toronto?" or "should this be in Ottawa?" we're still not 
thinking local enough.

Metro Vancouver doesn't have safe injection sites. There isn't one in 
Burnaby. Or Port Moody. Or Kitsilano. But there is one in the 
Downtown Eastside, where people want it. That's local. National 
Citizens Coalition president Stephen Harper was right: We need more of that.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom