Why Canada's State-Run Heroin-Shooting Center Proves That Medical-Marijuana Dispensaries Should Be Legal in Washington

In Vancouver. B.C,'s infamous Downtown Eastside there's a place called the Insite supervised injection site, where a junkie can walk in, get a clean needle, and shoot dope in their veins in front of a licensed medical professional there 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 in Canada has worked marvels reducing crime, sickness, and death. This center is, regardless, a frequent target of conservatives (even more so now that the country's government has flipped to a Conservative Party majority), and it has even been threatened by the United States DEA for violating American drug laws.

But the center has lived on. No one has arrested its doctors or employees, and its results speak for themselves. So while comparing Canadian law with 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.

Insite's fate is coming to a head right now in Canada where its existence is facing its most serious threat since it opened in 2003, thanks to the Conservative majority that swept into power in this year. 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, and as a recent study in The Lancet states, its results show that fatal overdoses have dropped 35 percent in the downtown Vancouver area around Insite, while OD deaths went down only 9 percent in the rest of Vancouver in that same time frame.

Another study published this year in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence also shows that Insite and injection centers like it have reduced crime and helped wean addicts off the drug 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 left in legal limbo over what they can and can't do.

And again here, the rights of a local municipality to enact and enforce a law that's at odds with national statutes on the subject is again under attack--in Washington's case, 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 that's before the Washington legislature now--the one that's trying to replace the previous bill that Gregoire gutted all meaningful reforms from--is likely to do little to clear up the state's legal confusion over the subject, and may in fact make things worse by setting up myriad local laws pertaining to cannabis instead of one statewide policy.

The bottom line, both in Washington with marijuana dispensaries and in Vancouver with 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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