The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Canada decriminalizing drugs in British Columbia will prolong suffering

Community activists hand out clean, tested doses of drugs at a April 14 demonstration calling for legislation and regulation of safer alternatives. (Jesse Winter/Reuters)
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In recent weeks, the Canadian health department has moved forward with a number of gimmicky proposals to scold and embarrass Canadians out of their bad habits. Earlier this month, it announced a proposal to require scary slogans to be printed on individual cigarettes (say, “poison in every puff”). Just over a week ago, it was reported that Health Canada will soon force “packaged foods high in sugar, salt or saturated fat to display a warning label.”

These are curious tactics, given the same health department recently allowed the province of British Columbia to decriminalize the possession of hard drugs for three years, on the grounds that doing so will soften the shame of drug use.

Lung cancer remains Canadas most common form of cancer and Canada has been ranked one of the most obese countries on earth. Neither problem, however, has quite the same sense of accelerating disaster as drug addiction in B.C., where drug toxicity deaths — which passed another record high of 2,224 last year — kill more British Columbians “than homicides, suicides, motor vehicle incidents, drownings and fire-related deaths combined,” according to the province’s coroner service.

Yet in approving B.C.’s decriminalization request, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration is effectively accepting the provincial government’s narrative that the real outrage here is a society that’s too judgmental toward drug users.

“Eliminating criminal penalties for those carrying small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use will reduce stigma and harm and provide another tool for British Columbia to end the overdose crisis,” said Carolyn Bennett, federal minister of mental health and addictions and associate minister of health.

The minister is tilting at windmills. “Criminal penalties” for drug-related offenses in Vancouver — where most B.C. drug deaths occur — have been extraordinarily rare for decades. In 2001, the head of the city’s drug squad bragged to the Canadian Senate that “simple possession charges are not pursued regardless of the type of drug” absent “extenuating circumstances.” By 2019, the police were denying “simple” drug arrests happened at all. Lax to nonexistent enforcement of drug laws came to be understood as the cornerstone of the “Vancouver model” of managing urban drug use, in which ensuring people with addictions supposedly “safe” access to drugs (through supervised heroin injection facilities, crack pipe vending machines and so on) was government’s main priority.

Eventually keeping drugs even nominally against the law was seen as problematic. Now, simple drug possession is Not a Crime, and the world can wait with bated breath to see if this latest “tool” of normalization will stem British Columbia’s body count in a way the previous ones haven’t.

As strategy, destigmatization is a classic sunk cost fallacy. In 2001, when Vancouver started down its current path, the argument that drug users were receiving excessive social opprobrium was still contrarian. Today, it’s become unchallengeable dogma, metastasizing into a fierce alliance of charities, activists and professional ideologues aggressively loyal to the anti-stigma doctrine — even as stigmatization gains popularity as a useful tactic for pursuing health objectives elsewhere.

Canadian cigarette boxes feature enormous gory photos, and posters hectoring about the dangers of over-drinking hang in the restrooms of bars. Television ads scold against driving drunk or while using your phone. Intimidating calorie counts are a common sight on restaurant menus, taxes on sodas are gaining traction (“it will save lives” says a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. commentator), while ideas such as “fat acceptance” remain fringe.

And that’s to say nothing of the growing list of bad-for-you things getting banned outright by the Canadian state, such as trans fats, flavored cigarettes and sugary drinks containing over 4.5 percent alcohol.

But somehow, hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine —extremely addictive and deadly toxins — have been granted a waiver from this culture of heavy-handed scorn and discouragement.

This reflects a sort of condescending class prejudice: Government rushes to regulate and discourage the self-destructive habits of the middle class, who authorities assume possess some degree of agency over their lives and can thus be persuaded out of doing bad things through propaganda and punishment.

Canada’s underclass, by contrast — in this case, drug users who are overwhelmingly destitute and poor — are presumed to have no such agency. Their defining self-destructive habit of drug addiction, “is not a choice” (as B.C.’s government incessantly repeats in its ad campaigns) but rather a “health condition” they can do little to escape. Accordingly, they deserve little more than sympathy, paternalistic supervision and protection from the disapproval of those who actually possess free will.

The end point of this mind-set, if continued to accelerate along this ideological track, will be truly dystopian. To believe in the existence of an incurable sector of the population whose defining symptom is substance addiction is a call to normalize what Vancouver already has in its infamous Downtown Eastside: carnage and suffering that can be pitied or managed but never judged or fixed — because nothing is wrong.