This week, the Canadian province of British Columbia announced it would be tightening its covid-19 restrictions in response to a modest increase in deaths and infections. B.C.’s covid-19 numbers are among the lowest on earth, but health officials say an abundance of caution is still justified. The province’s nightclubs and banquet halls will close, while bars must shut down by 10 p.m. and quiet their music to limit spittle.
Such bossy demands, while hardly North America’s most draconian, stand in sharp contrast to the province’s generally passive approach to what is numerically a far more serious health crisis. May, June and July have been the worst months in B.C. history for drug overdoses, with approximately 526 dead — more than double the 213 British Columbians who have died from coronavirus. At present rates, B.C. will again pass 1,000 overdose-related deaths by December, a grim benchmark it has cleared every year since 2017.
Drug-related deaths in British Columbia are concentrated in urban centers, with most in the city of Vancouver, where I was born and live. Drugs are an inescapable part of this city’s culture, with the horrors of abuse and addiction visible in every neighborhood. Spending time in Vancouver means constantly encountering men and women in severe states of mental and physical decay — writhing, shaking, if not lying unconscious or actively shooting up. Needles and arm-size rubber bands are common sights in the street. Vancouver’s drug problem correlates tightly with its chronic homelessness, which affected a record 2,223 people in 2019.
The tragic irony is that British Columbia doesn’t really believe it’s doing much wrong on the drug front. For close to 20 years there’s been strong consensus among the province’s politicians, bureaucrats and intellectuals that a broadly permissive, nonjudgmental approach to drugs is the right one, with positive outcomes that will surely manifest any day now.
In 2001, in response to what today sounds like an enviably low average of “147 illicit drug overdose deaths per year,” the City of Vancouver adopted a bold new drug strategy, “the four pillars.” Pillar four drew the most attention, as it recommended introducing “safe injection sites” where addicts could consume drugs in a clean, supervised setting to combat infectious diseases and overdoses — henceforth dubbed “harm reduction.”
Harm reduction was initially framed defensively. It did not mean “condoning the use of illicit drugs,” said the city’s 2001 policy paper, but rather “accepting the fact that drug use does and will occur — and accepting the need to minimize the harm this has on communities and individuals.”
Today I doubt anyone even remembers the other three pillars, so ideologically triumphant has “harm reduction” been. Once consumption of hard drugs was declared something that could never be solved — only managed through government-provided clean needles and, more recently, clean drugs — it was a short leap to accept drug use as a morally neutral act, or even an innocuous personal characteristic. Vancouver city council’s 2014 plan for the future of the city’s drug-ravaged downtown eastside barely mentions drugs at all, beyond some fleeting references to drug users as a “marginalized group” akin to Aboriginal people or seniors.
Acceptable discourse on drugs in B.C. has grown suffocatingly narrow. Premier John Horgan recently opined in passing that drug addiction is the result of “choices initially” and was promptly blasted by the opposition Liberal Party for framing addiction as anything but a “medical condition” — presumably an incurable one. Horgan has since demanded Prime Minister Justin Trudeau decriminalize all drugs “to reduce the systemic stigma associated with illicit drug use and support people to access the services that they need to stay safe and to start on their path to recovery.”
The premier’s words are paradoxical, however. “Illicit drug use” is not stigmatized frivolously, but because most of us are compassionate enough to want to discourage the consumption of brain- and body-rotting poisons. It’s unclear where the impetus to “recovery” comes from if our prevailing attitude is simply fatalism, with humans holding no agency over their addictions and “a mental prison of perpetual, state-sponsored drug use,” as Jeremy Devine put it, the most that can be aspired.
Trudeau has turned down Horgan’s request for decriminalization, though his Liberal administration has otherwise shown scant interest in challenging the progressive consensus that the only sensible drug policy is improving access while decreasing judgment. Given how little the country’s third-largest city has to show for following this line of thinking for two decades, Canada’s Conservatives should rise to offer an alternative. It must begin from a simple premise, and one so self-evident that only the country’s brightest minds could find it flawed: Drugs are awful things no one should use. Anyone in need of persuasion should come to Vancouver.
J.J. McCullough is a Global Opinions contributing columnist.