Don't Blame Canada

Why Vancouver's experiment with heroin is a model for Seattle.

In Vancouver, B.C., there's a place called Insite, a supervised injection center where junkies can walk in, get a clean needle, and shoot dope in front of a licensed medical professional to make sure they don't OD or hurt themselves. It's one of those kooky liberal experiments that one can't imagine happening in the United States, but which has worked marvels in Canada, reducing crime, sickness, and death. Despite being a frequent political target, Insite lives on. No one has arrested its doctors or employees, and its results speak for themselves: Fatal overdoses dropped 35 percent in the two years after Insite opened in 2003. So while comparing Canadian and American law is in some ways an apples-and-oranges exercise, the basic concept that legalization and regulation works while prohibition and enforcement doesn't is one that crosses all borders. But Insite now faces its most serious threat, thanks to the Conservative majority that swept into power earlier this month. The center's right to exist was recently affirmed by a Canadian court, but an appeal by Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be heard this week in the country's Supreme Court. The center is wildly popular in Vancouver—a study published this year in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence shows that Insite and injection centers like it have reduced crime and helped wean addicts off drugs and reduce the spread of disease. Meanwhile, only 30 miles away in Washington, a somewhat similar dynamic is evolving with state-run medical-marijuana dispensaries. Here, as in Vancouver, facts and logic support the idea that legitimizing and regulating the use of a drug (in this case marijuana that's limited to medical use) works better than leaving users and distributors of the substance in legal limbo over what they can and can't do. And here too, the right of a local municipality to enact and enforce a law that's at odds with national statutes is again under attack—by folks like Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna, who can't (or won't) wrap his head around it, and Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire, who is wildly mistaken in her interpretation of law and precedent. The bill now before the Washington legislature—SB 5955, an alternative to the previous bill that Gregoire gutted of all meaningful reforms—is likely to do little to clear up the state's legal confusion over the subject, and may in fact make things worse by allowing a myriad of local laws instead of one statewide policy. The bottom line, both for Washington's marijuana dispensaries and Vancouver's legalized heroin-injection centers, is that science and common sense show one thing while fear and defunct moralism show another. One simply has to ask with which side legislators cast their lot.

 
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