04/05/2014 02:49 EDT | Updated 06/05/2014 05:59 EDT

The Berlin Wall Theory Of Drug Prohibition


Parents who have experienced the devastation of having a child addicted to drugs understand the desire to criminalize our way out of the problems caused by drug addiction, says Nichola Hall, one such parent.

Sitting in the bright kitchen of her comfortable Kerrisdale home, Hall, a co-founder of the advocacy and family support group From Grief to Action, says members have come to the conclusion that regulation is preferable to prohibition.

"From our point of view, the more difficult you make it to get a hold of this stuff the better," she said. "So if one is convinced that it would be harder to obtain if regulated than on the black market, then that's a really good reason for legalizing and regulating it.

"We know that people get addicted to gambling and we don't say there should be no gambling. We know that people get addicted to alcohol and we don't say there should be no alcohol. As long as there is very strict regulation, I don't see why the same argument shouldn't apply to hard drugs," she added.

Donald MacPherson, director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, points to the success of reducing smoking through public education and said similar measures could apply to all drugs if they were legal and regulated.

"We can't do that right now because they are illegal," he said, adding that reform is hampered by an us-versus-them mentality focused on the most-marginalized drug users who we see on the streets but who are in fact the minority of people who use drugs.

"Most of us don't operate in that realm. We have friends, friends of friends, we use the telephone, it gets delivered. It's virtually impossible for enforcement to reach us. We don't believe that our drug laws actually deter because the threat of being caught is so remote."

Before serving as the City of Vancouver's drug policy co-ordinator, MacPherson was director of the Carnegie Centre in the heart of the Downtown Eastside. It is perhaps because of the unruly and tragic scene that greeted him every morning that he is so passionate about finding better ways to deal with addiction and mental health issues.

He clearly remembers the desperation he witnessed for a decade.

"I'm standing on the front steps of the Carnegie Centre and people are dropping dead in the streets, walking into traffic, shoving needles into their arms, dying in hotel rooms and no response. Zero response."

He also remembers that in the mid-1990s, health officials responded overnight to a Hepatitis A scare at a health food bar in Canada Place, site of a luxury hotel, cruise ship docks and the Vancouver Convention Centre.

"There was nothing in the papers about 'don't shoot heroin alone, test your heroin before you use it, this can kill you.' But for a Hep A scare they can mobilize overnight."

His work as drug policy co-ordinator contributed to the opening of Insite and after nine years at city hall, MacPherson decided it was time to dedicate himself full-time to changing the way we deal with drugs.

"Regulation is a means to an end. It's one of the ways to achieve goals like reducing harm such as HIV, overdose deaths, and ending the criminalization of people using drugs. We don't want to get caught in the trap of regulation will solve all of our problems, but it's a place to start."

Showing his Maritime humour, he adds: "I have the Berlin Wall theory of drug prohibition. The wall is coming down. We don't know exactly when but it's coming down."