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August 22, 2007 - Vancouver Courier (CN BC)

OpEd: Prohibition Failing Spectacularly

By Tom Sandborn

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The shooters wore masks.

They brandished automatic weapons as they entered the Fortune Happiness on Aug. 9. When they fled moments later, they left eight young victims bleeding among shards of broken glass on the floor of the East Broadway restaurant. Press reports breathlessly told of two dead, six wounded, and speculated that the killings were gang-related.

If so, and it does seem likely, the shootings represent yet another lethal event in the round of drug gang shootings we have seen over the past few years in Lower Mainland communities. Within hours the news was all over CNN, broadcast in heavy and lurid rotation on TV screens around the world.

Since then, we've all been treated to three unwholesome and unhelpful spectacles: the ongoing and shameless orgy of media voyeurism cited above, the prime minister trying to turn the tragedy to political advantage for his law and order Tories and a predictably self-serving pitch from the city police arguing that they need more money and more officers on the anti-gun beat.

A bit more plausibly, and usefully, the VPD cautioned against public panic, pointing out that violent crime is actually in decline in the city. Clearly, then, there is no need for Vancouverites to rush to the city exits for fear of being caught in the cross-fire. There is a need, however, for long-deferred civic reflection.

Until we smarten up and decriminalize all drug use by adults, we will see more bloody spectacles like the shootout at the Fortune Happiness. Drug prohibition creates organized crime, super profits for criminals and violence among competing drug groups.

It was true for the ill-advised attempts to criminalize alcohol during Prohibition and it's true today.

Prohibition never works.

Our refusal to learn from the failed and tragic history of Prohibition is one of the reasons those young people died at the Fortune Happiness. Prohibition is a great and profitable gift to the Mafia and its latter day successors, but it does nothing to achieve its ostensible goals.

None of this is to suggest that the use of drugs like cocaine, heroin and crystal meth is a good idea, or that we shouldn't use public money for genuine drug education (as opposed to the saccharine and unhelpful good intentions of "just say no" abstinence programs( to encourage wiser choices than those represented by the noxious white powder drugs.

Cannabis, clearly, is another matter.

It has never made sense for us to impose legal or social sanctions on the use of a benign plant product less destructive than alcohol or tobacco.

Decriminalization, harm reduction and public education across the board are the policies that might move us toward sanity on drug use in Canada. The enormous progress made in the last generation in discouraging tobacco use and reckless drunk driving point in the direction of policy interventions that make more sense than pouring more money into failed Prohibition attempts.

Economic reforms that left fewer people poor and desperate enough to be drawn into destructive drug use would help, too. Harm reduction tactics, like our city's threatened Insite supervised injection project, represent wise public policy and use of tax dollars.

Prohibition and ramped up and intrusive police presence in poor neighbourhoods, which is the most visible result of the war on drugs, do not.

Removing the legal sanctions against use and possession of all drugs may seem like a reckless experiment, but only if you can blind yourself to the abject failure of the status quo. A turn to drug policy sanity is required at the federal level, where criminal law is shaped, but Vancouverites should have a special interest in calling for such changes, and not just because of the latest bloody melodrama.

Our city has been a working experiment in drug prohibition now for far too long, and the lethal results of that failed experiment are on display every day in the streets of the Downtown Eastside as well as in tragedies like the shootings at the Fortune Happiness.

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