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News (Media Awareness Project) - Canada: Column: Addicted To Prohibition
Title:Canada: Column: Addicted To Prohibition
Published On:2012-01-21
Source:National Post (Canada)
Fetched On:2012-01-23 06:03:43

In The Man with the Twisted Lip, Arthur Conan Doyle's 16th-favourite
Sherlock Holmes story, Dr. Watson is impelled to find a man in an
opium den located in "a vile alley" on a London Wharf. The
establishment itself is not much better: "Through the gloom, one could
dimly catch a glimpse of . bowed shoulders, heads thrown back, and
chins pointing upward, with here and there a dark, lack-luster eye
turned upon the newcomer." They mutter to themselves or to each other
in trailed-off conversations, and Watson doesn't aim to stay long.

Conan Doyle - whose most famous hero was a proponent of both cocaine
and morphine, remember - was propagating what was for his time the
conventional wisdom on opium dens: horrible, dim places, populated
chiefly by ethnics and a few wayward countrymen. As frequently happens
with conventional wisdom, this was wrong on several counts.

For starters, opium dens were never terribly widespread in England,
due mainly to the low population of Chinese people, who tended to
spread the practice: Outside of Asia, opium dens chiefly flourished,
as it were, in France and along North America's west coast. Second,
they weren't necessarily squalid: Some Asian dens were actually quite
opulent, as photographs from the day show. According to contemporary
accounts, the state of North American dens tended to vary with the
class of patrons, a good number of whom were from the less maligned -
i.e. white - ethnic groups.

Nevertheless, it was this popular conception that helped stir up
public fervor against not just the dens but the drug they distributed.
San Francisco took the first steps, banning the public smoking of
opium in the 1870s, helped along by a healthy wave of anti-Chinese
sentiment, stirred partly by the increased numbers who had come to
help construct railroads and other infrastructure. The fervent need to
do something spread until, on January 23, 1912, 13 nations got
together in The Hague, Netherlands, and signed the International Opium
Convention, the world's first global drug-control treaty.

The success of our century-long experiment is, well, debatable. Opium
dens, of course, have long been consigned to daguerreotypes and
Victorian fiction, which is actually no small victory: With pockets of
exception, and then essentially only for narcotics far softer than
heroin, there is almost nowhere in the world where you can openly take
the substances we have collectively decided to prohibit without the
fear of police intervention. That's indicative of the fact that,
though it may not seem like it, drugs are actually harder to get than
when we began. To take opium as an example, in 1906 there was
supposedly 41,000 tons of it produced in the world (reliable
statistics from the time are hard to come by, so this number is
disputed); nevertheless, today, despite a recent uptick, medicinal and
illegal uses of opium combined only manage an eighth of that, even
with a vastly expanded population. This is some kind of progress.

Still, though the signers of the original treaty allowed for the
"gradual suppression" of drugs, it's doubtful they meant this gradual.
The illegal drug trade is estimated to generate some $400-billion
worldwide, putting it only behind oil and weapons in terms of
worldwide economic scope. Then, of course, there are prohibition's
spin-off effects. Drugs always have had a human toll (China, which was
crazy for the stuff, still spoke regretfully of the "opium ghosts"
that were sometimes left in its wake). But the sort of
institutionalized violence we see today in, say, Mexico's border
region, at least wasn't a function of unregulated drug use.

Actually, to detour for a second, it should probably be qualified that
non-government-sanctioned institutionalized violence wasn't a
necessary consequence of unregulated drugs. Though the Chinese and
opium use were intimately connected by 1912, the union was helped
along greatly by the British military.

Opium first popped up in China in the 18th-century, but the Chinese
emperor eventually made it illegal, which helped minimize its use
until the British sought to resolve a huge trade deficit - they were
almost literally importing all the tea in China - by flooding China
with opium from its Indian colony. Though smugglers were quite happy,
the Chinese twice tried very hard to stop the practice. With an
economy to protect, the British responded by waging the Opium Wars,
the results of which included the British control of Hong Kong and a
widespread culture of opium use in China. There is no small irony in
the fact that the 1912 convention, signed by the British, devotes an
entire chapter to essentially shaming China, including detailing how
the contracted powers will prevent the plague of opium use in the

Granted, stark hypocrisy is probably not a terribly big surprise to
those who pay attention to drug policy today. If anything, it's a
pointed reminder that, when it comes to drug control, little changes.
However you judge the success of our first century of global efforts
to eradicate drug use, what is most striking is how similar our
approach has remained: Save for some archaic language and a welcome
brevity, the 1912 convention could pass for a 2012 resolution, with
its assumption that good intentions and making things illegal will be
enough to solve the problem.

With luck, by the time 2112 comes along, we will have at least adapted
our approach. There is no reason, to borrow from Conan Doyle again,
that drug policy should be the one fixed point in a changing age.
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