But certainly not… heroin?

I had a nice trip up to Chicago this weekend, to see the fabulous Chicago Dance Crash (of which I am a board member), and take care of a few other things in the area.
On the way up in the car with some friends, discussion naturally turned to the drug war. And as often happens, one of my friends stated a fairly popular sentiment that goes something like this…

Of course, I agree that marijuana should be legalized. That’s just common sense. But certainly you’re not advocating legalizing or decriminalizing hard drugs like heroin?

I fully understand why people think this way — they’re looking at relative dangers, rather than the underlying speciousness of prohibition.
And quite frankly, when they think of taking heroin out of the criminal justice system, they tend to immediately imagine a legalization scheme that would allow it to be sold to young children at every corner convenience store, with a shrink-wrapped syringe and vial of heroin in a colorful package right next to the Butterfingers. Well, of course it’s ridiculous in that scenario.
However, each drug should be dealt with in a way that is appropriate to the drug. So I always respond that, in my view, heroin should be given away for free. This usually shocks the other person to silence, giving me time to explain.
The problem is that prohibition makes it profitable for dealers to hook people with heroin. Once they’ve got them hooked, they have a perfect return customer who will always come up with whatever money is being charged for their fix. The addict spends their entire existence doing whatever is necessary to get their next fix. If that lifestyle doesn’t kill them, then overdoses, doctored drugs, or dirty needles will get them. Prohibition, jail, loss of familyl and friends, and cold-turkey-abstinence-only-style treatment just add to the cycles of despair, and feed the profits of the dealer.
What most people don’t realize is that another approach has been tried that is hugely successful:

Switzerland is now leading the way out of prohibition.æ In 1994, it started prescribing free heroin to long-term addicts who had failed to respond to law enforcement or any other treatment.æ In 1998, a Lausanne criminologist, Martin Kilias, found that the users’ involvement in burglary, mugging and robbery had fallen by 98%; in shoplifting, theft and handling by 88%; in selling soft drugs by 70%; in selling hard drugs by 91%.æ As a group, their contacts with police had plunged to less than a quarter of the previous level.æ The Dutch and the Germans have had similar results with the same strategy.æ All of them report that, apart from these striking benefits in crime prevention, the users are also demonstrably healthier ( because clean heroin properly used is a benign drug ) and that they are more stable with clear improvements in housing, employment and relationships. [The Guardian]

The nice side benefit when you open this idea to a wider group? It drives the dealer out of business. Why hook someone new on heroin, if they’ll be able to get it for free afterward? So it reduces the number of new addicts, while helping existing addicts build their self-esteem and health, and even get a job, which then makes it easier to kick the habit when they’re ready.
Of course, people don’t want to hear that heroin can be benign, and yet, in addition to anectodal information to that effect in places like Jacob Sullum’s excellent “Saying Yes,” a new study shows the same thing:

The study, by Dr David Shewan and Phil Dalgarno, focuses on 126 long-term heroin users not being treated for their drug use, recruited in the Glasgow area.

Dr Shewan says the study shows that “while there are heroin users with problems, there are also heroin users without problems.

“It should not be assumed that heroin inevitably leads to addictive and destructive patterns and that all users suffer negative social and health consequences.”

(Naturally, that study upset some of the drug warriors in England.)
Well now, there will be a limited trial of free heroin in North America (no, not the U.S., you silly person — in Canada, of course). It will be for a small number of hard-core addicts only, but even that is better than nothing.
[Thanks to Nicolas for sending me this article in the Globe and Mail:]

“What if you could say to an addict, ‘For the next little while, you’re not going to have to get your drugs from Al Capone. You can get your drugs from Marcus Welby,’ ” said Dr. Martin Schechter, the project’s lead researcher.

“You don’t have to worry about this afternoon and this evening. And therefore, you don’t have to go and break in to cars or be a prostitute. You could actually come and talk to a counsellor or . . . get some skills training.”

It’s a landmark study in North America, one that turns its back on abstinence as the goal.

Wait for it… and the reaction to this planned trial from our Drug Czar?

As expected, the plan has rankled U.S. drug officials, specifically the office of White House drug czar John Walters, where an official called it an unethical and “inhumane medical experiment.”


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