Drug policy freak show

A scathing criticism of the Canadian federal government’s opposition to Insite.

Complete with serious flaws when reporting history…

A major factor in the court’s thinking was the widespread belief at the time that addiction could be cured easily thanks to a marvelous treatment invented by Charles B. Towns, a failed stockbroker. Unfortunately, it was realized not long after the ruling that Towns was a quack. But by then, it was too late. All maintenance programs had been shut down and the drug problems we are now so familiar with — black markets, violence, disease — sprouted in American cities.

…and idealized reporting of drug policy and other countries…

I’ve seen it at work in the Netherlands. Imagine healthy heroin addicts. With jobs. And apartments. And families. Addicts who are not a blight on the community. It’s all thanks to an array of harm reduction programs which this country is too timid to even try.

In the United Kingdom, by contrast, maintenance remained the central policy for another 45 years. In all that time, the underworld drug scene scarcely existed.

…and insults for those the writer disagrees with…

The government’s handling of drug policy is so ignorant and foolish it is a challenge to explain why in a newspaper column. To expound on stupidity of this magnitude requires a very long book.

I thought for some time about whether to post anything about this column. It’s so hostile to those who disagree and it is dripping with what Anne Lamott once called “excessive certitude”. I didn’t want to give it any attention, but it exemplifies two things that I’d like to draw attention to. First, as I’ve written before, there is no problem-free drug policy. Any drug policy will have problems, probably serious problems. The important questions are:

  • Which problems are we most unwilling to live with?
  • Which problems are we most willing to tolerate?
  • What strategies will help us achieve these goals while maintaining concern for all problems?

Of course, of equal importance is our willingness to regularly re-assess policy to improve our response and address unanticipated problems.

The second point I wanted to make is that drug policy dicussion has devolved in a way that is similar to American political discourse. In his book, The Way to Win, Mark Halperin describes the phenomena of the political “freak show” where media is shining the spotlight on the extreme poles of political thought. These voices get more attention and often eventually intensify their rhetoric to keep the spotlight on them. These voices get framed as “the debate” when most people are somewhere in the middle or adopt positions that are not represented at all. Discourse gets uglier and uglier, and the voices on the poles intensify their rhetoric (often getting increasingly intellectually lazy and/or dishonest) while everyone else withdraws.

I see something similar happening in drug policy debates. There is a lot that reasonable people can disagree about. Where we have disagreements, we should disagree and disagree vigorously. But, we should try to keep in mind that all of us come into these discussions with our own priorities and values. We should be willing to identify our own priorities and values and be willing to listen to those of other people. There’s a strong public health case for Insite and other HR programs–and that abstinence-oriented providers were not responsive enough to the needs of pre-contemplative addicts and public health concerns. There’s a strong libertarian case for treating drug use as a matter of personal liberty–and that we should all be troubled by incarceration rates and that we should be thoughtful and cautious in the use of coercion to get people into treatment. There is also strong case that drug policy is too often focused on the needs of people other than the addict and is too often based on beliefs that addicts don’t want help, can’t get well, and are of questionable character. All of these positions offer important perspectives, but none of them capture the whole picture.

The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change, until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.

Ronald Laing

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Drug policy freak show

  1. Derek

    I do agree the drug policy debate is highly polarised and that it’s mostly the fault of the media. Seemingly every day we see “drug horror shock” stories in the tabloid (and not so tabloid) press whilst the law reform movement is portrayed as simply wanting a “liberal” regime. This article at least went some way to redressing the balance by focussing on the evidence free way politicians make policy.You wrote:>>…and idealized reporting of drug policy and other countries…>>Concerning his comments about the situation in Holland and the UK; He’s right actually.In Holland, addicts are getting older, fewer young people are being recruited and their general health is improving. In the UK prior to 1971 when we were daft enough to follow the USA into the drug war, we had what we were proud to call “The British system” of heroin maintenance and indeed, the heroin here problem was tiny. Since prohibition began to bite the problem has indeed ballooned.If you want an example of the government’s “ignorant” and “foolish” handling of the drug situation, look no further than our Prime Minister Brown’s rejection of his own expert advisors regarding cannabis classification – not on the basis of proper evidence, but because he “believes” it to be right.It is, in fairness, time to shine a highly critical spotlight on drug policy and critical reporting is the way to go. It’s about time we saw some.

  2. Jason Schwartz

    I’m not expert on the Netherlands drug policies, but it’s my understanding that part of their approach has been to build broad public support for their drug policy. They do this by being responsive to public concerns, like the proximity of cafes to schools, ecstasy production within their borders, etc.Their government reports a spike in THC content of marijuana in the Netherlands and the media recently reported on a spike in the number of people seeking treatment for marijuana dependence. It will be interesting to see if that media report is true and, if so, what the response is.It’s also my impression that, relatively speaking, they invest heavily in treatment. I’ve blogged here before that I’m not an ideologue, but I am queasy about decriminalisation. One way to address the concerns of people like me is to guarantee access to swift and comprehensive treatment to anyone who needs it.

  3. Jason Schwartz

    Oops. Part of my point with the comment about building broad public support for a policy is that you’ll never get there by insulting people. The freak show kills any posibility of this.BTW – Sweden is also pointed to as a drug policy success. There may be good reasons why Sweden’s a bad model for Canada, the U.K. or the U.S., but shouldn’t any serious discussion address all the potential models?