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Reassessing the war on drugs: Patrick Basham

While a policy analyst with the Fraser Institute, Patrick Basham presented the following speech at a conference in Edmonton in 2000 entitled “Reassessing the War on Drugs." Basham’s remarks are part of a growing body of intellectual work opposing the war on drugs from a conservative perspective.

Patrick Basham - September 30, 2009

Nor is the Canadian judicial system exactly a drug-free zone. For example, in May 1997 a federal drug lab's chemist died of an overdose of cocaine and heroin, immediately casting doubt on 20 years worth of drug convictions

Now, let's get a little more specific. Let's start by looking at the relationship between health care and the War on Drugs.

The startling, deeply unpleasant, but equally unavoidable fact is that 80 percent of drug-related deaths aren't the result of drug use -- they're the result of drug prohibition. This makes complete sense. After all, an illegal drug is one that isn't subject to regulation or quality control or producer liability. Therefore, drug taking remains a health lottery for addicts.

Drug-related AIDS is almost exclusively the result of prohibition. 50 percent of new HIV patients are intravenous drug users. In Vancouver this year, 400 people will die of a drug overdose. In BC, intravenous drug overdose is the leading cause of death for adults between 30 and 49 years.

Why such alarming figures? Because prohibition's drain on the public purse prevents the necessary rehab, detox, and other treatment facilities from being funded at anything more than a fraction of the required level.

In response to such chilling statistics, Health Canada recommended the opening of 4 so-called "safe injection sites" in Vancouver's downtown eastside. The goal is to mirror the success of similar programs in 3 European cities. These programs, such as the one operating in Frankfurt, Germany, have led to dramatic declines in HIV cases and in the number of overdose deaths. Of course, such programs aren't a panacea. They require, at a minimum, parallel detox and rehab programs.

Similarly, so-called "heroin prescription" trials have been endorsed by some provincial health officers. Heroin prescription programs have been successfully experimented with in Switzerland. The resulting decline in social dysfunction, including crime, has led to copycat programs in Spain, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Such experimentation has been endorsed by German police chiefs and most state health ministers throughout Australia.

But, you might ask, aren't these drugs so bad for one's health that their use must be proscribed? Well, hard drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, are permanently damaging to your health, as is long-term use of marijuana.