History is supposed to teach us lessons. But when it comes to drug use and abuse, two professors are arguing we as a society have failed to learn from the past.
Catherine Carstairs, an assistant professor in history at the University of Guelph, argues the creation of anti-drug laws in the early part of the 20th century drove users underground led to the proliferation of more dangerous drugs.
Tough drug enforcement in the mid-20th century served in part to make drug users look cooler in the eyes of disaffected youth, she also argued.
Andrew Hathaway, a sociologist and drug policy researcher at McMaster University in Hamilton, draws a parallel between Prohibition in the 1920s and today's drug laws.
Alcohol prohibition led huge numbers of people to flout the law, created an environment that allowed organized crime to flourish, encouraged people to consume dangerous homemade concoctions and overburdened the justice system, he says, arguing things are much the same with drugs today.
The pair were speaking recently at a forum organized by The Community Safety and Crime Prevention Council and Ray of Hope, a Kitchener-based social service agency.
The talk was part of a series of films, forums and workshops on substance use and abuse collectively known as In The Mind's Eye. The mostly-free series goes until Nov. 28.
In 19th-century North America, drugs were readily available, with heroin sold alongside Aspirin over pharmacy counters, Carstairs said.
There were addicts, of course, but also many recreational users, largely from the Chinese community, which was growing particularly on Canada's west coast.
It was common in those days for Chinese to smoke opium socially or ritually, much as Canadians of European descent drank alcohol at home, in bars, at weddings and funerals, Carstairs said.
The professor argued the social agitation against drugs that began in the early 20th century was rooted in racism. As the Asian population grew, so did anti-Asian sentiment, and some campaigners seized on the "dirty" Chinese habit of opium smoking as a reason to exclude them from Canada, she said.
The fear of the "Asian influx" came to a head in 1907, when a white mob smashed up a number of businesses in Vancouver's Chinatown.
The then-deputy minister of labour, William Lyon Mackenzie King, was called upon to investigate the riot and the claims for compensation.
One of the claims was from a perfectly legal opium manufacturing company. The future prime minister was appalled to hear there were opium companies operating openly in Canada.
A moral reform movement was on the rise at the same time, and in 1908, a law was passed to outlaw importing and selling opium. Three years later, possession was also outlawed and cocaine was included, Carstairs said.
After World War One, soldiers returned home to an economy in recession and many blamed their unemployment on Chinese supposedly taking their jobs.
One of the ways the "ferocious anti-Chinese racism" was manifested was in public hysteria over drugs. In newspaper accounts of the day, "the victims were always young white men and women and the villains were always the evil, nefarious Chinese traffickers," said Carstairs.
The result in the 1920s was more money for enforcement and stronger drug laws, including six-month minimum jail sentences for possession.
In a sense, these measures were successful, in that many of the casual users gave up opium smoking. The down side was that dependent users looked for less conspicuous forms of opiates, such as morphine and heroin, which were more powerful. They also started injecting them rather than smoking them.
"This change had deleterious consequences for their health, because not only are they using more powerful drugs, they're using them in a more powerful way," Carstairs said.
Drug use grew after the Second World War, especially among marginalized urban youth. Because being caught for possession meant automatic jail time, users took to carrying drugs in their mouths so they could swallow them if caught.
Police organized stakeouts and grabbed suspected users by their necks so they couldn't swallow the evidence. Users fought back, often in groups.
And so users started to gain a reputation for their toughness and solidarity, making drug use attractive in the eyes of rebellious youth who wanted a sense of belonging, Carstairs said.
Hathaway argued that just as prohibition made safe beer and wine difficult to obtain and led people to experiment with more potent and toxic homebrews, the impossibility of drug quality control has led to the sale of dangerous substances such as adulterated marijuana, ecstasy and crystal meth.
Just as Prohibition put bootlegging in the hands of mobsters, today's drug laws put the drug trade in the hands of often-violent organized crime, Hathaway said.
The desire to alter consciousness is nearly universal, and many cultures past and present have managed to do it in a controlled manner, the professor argued.
"Harm reduction first and foremost accepts drug use as a fact. Not a moral issue. A fact."
But despite decades of recommendations and evidence that initiatives such as needle exchanges and safe-injection sites save lives, very few agencies in Canada take a harm-reduction approach, Hathaway said.
In response to an audience member's concern that legalizing or decriminalizing drugs would increase use, Hathaway responded that in the few U.S. and Australian states that have decriminalized marijuana, use hasn't increased compared to other states.
"The debate hinges far less on the scientific evidence than deep-rooted moral schisms . . . and there's a tremendous financial stake in prohibition. There's a lot of jobs on the line."
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