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Legalizing drugs is a tempting idea whose time is yet to come

The Province, 1st November 2005

On the face of it, Canada's approach to the use of illegal drugs has failed. The number of addicts continues to rise, and putting them in prison does little or nothing to cure their habit.

It makes sense, therefore, that when B.C.'s medical officers of health, sitting as the Health Officers Council of B.C., recommend a major shift in policy we should pay close attention.

In a report released to a conference held in Vancouver this week, the council proposed legalizing and regulating access to mind-altering drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

Drug abuse, the council said, should in future be a health issue, pure and simple -- and be removed entirely from the criminal justice system.

One of the arguments is that people given controlled access to drugs would no longer be driven to steal to support their addiction.

They also argue that regulation would cut down on the number of drug-related deaths by ensuring the purity of the product. Sharing dirty needles and spreading Hep C would be a thing of the past.

It is a tempting vision. And the integrity and depth of experience of those behind it are beyond question.

Nor are the health officers alone. There is a growing consensus within the medical community that treating addicts as criminals will do nothing to lessen the havoc caused by drug abuse.

But will the idea fly?

Legalizing heroin and cocaine -- or, for that matter, marijuana -- may make perfect sense on an intellectual level.

But there are times when what the head tells us, our basic instincts are disinclined to accept.

Public opinion is a fickle thing. It may lag frustratingly behind expert opinion, it may be fuelled by ignorance and prejudice -- but it cannot be discounted.

While people may be sympathetic to the plight of addicts -- many of them from the most vulnerable sectors of society -- are people really ready to see their tax dollars pay for the druggies' daily fix?

Millions of ordinary families across B.C. work hard every day to make ends meet, to feed and clothe their kids, to put money aside for a rainy day, to take care of their health.

They can be forgiven if they hesitate to embrace with enthusiasm radical policies designed to help those whom, fairly or unfairly, they may see as the architects of their own misfortune.

In theory, we endorse the health officers' report.

In reality, it will have to wait.

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