Monday, April 17, 2006

The pharmacist has your ecstasy ready

The Toronto Star

Imagine stopping off at the drugstore for some controlled substances before heading out for a night in Toronto's red-light district. It's all legal, controlled, regulated - and taxed.

A Toronto weekend reveller pops into a local drugstore to pick up some ecstasy. He's followed by an addict who's there to buy a single-dose, non-reusable syringe for her fix.

Both transactions are administered by a pharmacist trained to offer advice on the safest way to use the substances.

Nearby, at a "natural herbal products" outlet, pot smokers are lined up for some grown-in-Ontario weed.

The sales are all legal, controlled, regulated and taxed — with profits divided among suppliers, distributors and sellers once a sizeable chunk of cash has been diverted to government coffers for enforcement, management and treatment of drug dependency, and for other social programs.

A far-fetched scenario?

Perhaps, but the Health Officers' Council of B.C., a group of public-health physicians, suggested it was a workable strategy in its landmark discussion paper released last fall.

The document, titled A Public Health Approach to Drug Control in Canada, contends that removing criminal penalties for personal drug possession and placing currently illegal substances under tight controls could not only help to start and maintain rehabilitation programs for addicts, but could also "reduce secondary unintended drug-related harms to society that spring from a failed criminal-prohibition approach."

The paper adds: "This would move individual harmful illegal drug use from being primarily a criminal issue to being primarily a health issue."

The arguments are persuasive: Legalizing illicit drugs would substantially reduce the crime rate, largely by driving the black market out of business and rendering it unnecessary for addicts to commit petty theft.

"So much crime is due to people being driven by their dependency," says Dr. Richard Mathias, a specialist in community medicine and professor of public health at the University of British Columbia. "If we could deal with that dependency and make it not the focus of their lives, at least a reasonably high percentage can get on with their lives, and don't have to steal to get their drugs at a reasonable cost and reasonably safely."

He points to an Ottawa shelter that gives out small amounts of alcohol. "It doesn't make them drunk, but the fact that even with an alcohol addiction, if they know they are going to get booze, they don't go into that seeking behaviour that dependency drives them to. It's made a world of difference."

What hasn't, he and others argue, is the estimated $1 billion spent annually on drug law enforcement in Canada. Yet there never seems to be a shortage of drugs for people who want to get high, the threat of arrest and prison notwithstanding.

The war on drugs is an abysmal failure, say anti-prohibitionists, and it's time society took an alternative approach that accepts "drug use is found everywhere in the world, and we're never going to be a drug-free society," says Philippe Lucas, a medicinal marijuana activist.

The council advised regulating drugs "in direct proportion to the harm they can do."

Just as there are for alcohol and tobacco, there would be age restrictions. Depending on the drug, there could also be mandatory training and quantity could be rationed, and there could be licensing and registration requirements.

Mathias, also health critic for the Green Party, which has put the approach in its platform, said such a system doesn't encourage wholesale drug abuse.

"We agree with the fundamental (tenet of) prohibition (which) says don't use it," he says. "Public health says the same thing, but if you're going to make a choice about drugs you have to do so with knowledge."

It would need inspectors and police involvement, he adds, because a "regulated market is regulated through law, and we need enforcement, or profit motive will cause us problems again.

"Studies done have found it's harder for young people to buy alcohol than it is to buy marijuana," Mathias adds.

And while we're taking the illicit out of drug use, Alan Young, a York University law professor, suggests striking out laws that prevent indoor prostitution, thereby opening the doors to a red-light, brothel-type system in Toronto. "Under the current laws, prostitutes are being endangered by the fact that they can't work indoors," Young says.

"Prostitution per se is not illegal, but all the activities associated with it, including the broadest one, communicating for the purpose, they are all criminalized, so it's kind of a paradox that you can do this legally but you can't do it in any way that's safe, and that's why the law's deficient and should change."

Residents would no longer worry about hookers and johns in their 'hoods. Police wouldn't need to do periodic "sweeps."

So where would Young put a Toronto red-light district?

"Nobody wants them in their backyard, but those aren't insurmountable problems."

By Betsy Powell


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