As I discussed in September, British Columbia’s drug crisis is uniquely tragic because it comes against the backdrop of a progressive political establishment that’s long insisted it’s actually managing the problem in a world-class way. For instance, Philip Owen, the former mayor of Vancouver associated with heralding the start of the city’s liberal drug regime, has been showered with awards and accolades as a trailblazing pioneer of informed and compassionate policy, though today overdose deaths in Vancouver are more than twice as high as when he took office in 1993. Whenever such embarrassments surface, however, they are reliably hand-waved away with excuses that yesterday’s heroic reform is completely insufficient to meet the unique circumstances of today.
Thus, government-provided clean needles and supervised injection sites have given way to government-provided “safe supply” of clean drugs and, now, the government of British Columbia formally requesting Ottawa’s permission to begin decriminalizing drugs altogether.
The ask represents a particularly decadent moment in the game of ever-moving goal posts that is B.C. drug policy, since despite a broad consensus among the province’s elites that decriminalization is the way to go, few advocates are able to give a persuasive or even coherent justification for their latest craze.
In her official response to the 2020 death toll, B.C. addictions minister Sheila Malcolmson simply said that she plans to “move forward on decriminalization in order to reduce stigma and save lives,” while Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart launched a petition boosting the plan as a way to “end the stigma around substance use.” Provincial coroner Lisa Lapointe blamed “decades of this punishing and stigmatizing approach” for “the devastating place we’re in today,” while Premier John Horgan tweeted that “having an addiction is not a crime & shouldn’t be treated as such.”
Such hazy allusions to the idea that authorities are rounding up drug users remain popular in progressive circles, despite the fact that drug-related criminal charges have actually been decreasing in British Columbia over the past decade. Drug users may very well still be winding up in prison, but that’s because drug use tends to correlate with criminal activity of other sorts. Poisoning yourself with heroin or crack may be a “victimless crime” to everyone except the poisoned, but when drug users assault, steal or vandalize in a drug-addled state, or because they want more drugs, or because they’re miserable about being a drug addict, then the harm is hardly contained. Addicts will remain stigmatized so long as they remain disposed to behavior that is disturbing and dangerous, just as drunks remain stigmatized despite the legal status of alcohol.
B.C.’s war on stigma is especially pernicious given that it comes at the expense of one of the most essential tools of combating destructive behavior: education. Rates of tobacco smoking and impaired driving have declined massively in Canada in part because the perils of doing otherwise have been made explicit by highly effective public information efforts over the past three decades. On the illicit drug front, however, the government of British Columbia has been moving in precisely the opposite direction, discarding harsh truths for friendly euphemisms (addiction becomes “problematic substance use,” etc.) and what Malcolmson calls a “province-wide social marketing anti-stigma campaign,” including ads portraying drug users as happy members of bourgeois society.
It’s worth pondering what the endgame of all this will be.
The darkest possibility is the eventual emergence of completely chaotic no-go-zones in the most drug-ravished parts of the province, such as Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, once all policing is declared part of the problem, and completely ungoverned violent anarchy presented as the purest form of liberation from stigma. That may strike some as cartoonishly extreme, but I’m sure vending machines selling opioids and crack pipes would have sounded paranoid a decade ago, too.
A more upbeat scenario is that B.C.’s ruling progressives are instead someday inspired by a promising precedent somewhere in Europe, or perhaps a blue American city, in which a tiny bit more official discouragement of drug consumption, as part of a larger strategy to actively incentivize treatment and healthy, post-drug lifestyles, is seen to have achieved admirable results. That would presumably grant moral cover to recalibrate provincial policy in a more genuinely humane direction, with a long overdue concession that there exist worse fates in life than being judged.