As many of you know Taylor and I wrote a piece on what we termed neo-progressivism in last September’s Literary Review of Canada.
Since then we’ve keep our eye out for other discussions where we think neo-progressives are gaining traction in the public discourse. Some of the indicators we looking for are policies where:
- The conversation is deadlocked and going nowhere
- The conversation isn’t possible because alternatives to the status quo are considered taboo
- Areas where the gap between ideology and research or evidence is significant
- Debates where their are real divisions within either the left or right
- Debates which unite odd factions from within the left and right
- Policy areas where individual freedom is curtailed
- Places where the impact on the public in general is growing
This list isn’t exhaustive nor is it a scientific – they are just a couple of triggers wer look our for.
Well, if you are looking at this list you may have noticed that last month a potential candidate emerged far on the horizon. It was a surprising one for me since I do some volunteering around this issue here in Vancouver and I really didn’t see it coming.
I’m talking of drug prohibition.
The aha moment was seeing the (very) conservative Cato Institute publish a report by Glen Greenwald (a case study neo-pragmatists) in which he analyzed the impact of drug decriminalization in Portugal. As the report’s summary states:
For over seven years, drugs have been decriminalized in Portugal. This new study examines the Portuguese model and the data concerning drug-related trends in Portugal, and argues that, “judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalization framework has been a resounding success.”
Then consider drug prohibition against the list I outlined above. This topic should not have snuck up on me:
- Deadlocked conversation: The “War on Drugs” vs. “Marijuana activists” increasingly leaves the public turned off. The war on drugs industry and its militarization of the police is costly, dangerous to civil liberties and has failed to address the problem for 30 years. Indeed, as the RCMP now admits, reducing the flow of drugs actually renders the situation more dangerous for citizens. Conversely, the counter-culture movement around pot activists is equally alienating. It is hard to attract middle class support when every middle class parent fears that this counter-culture will become the norm and their children will be destined life as a pot-head.
- Alternatives to the status quo are taboo: For most politicians talking about ending drug prohibition is absolutely taboo, although this is shifting. Vancouver’s mayor recently stated that the sate should “regulate, control and tax marijuana,” and that “the prohibition approach to it is not working.” The Liberals under Martin considered decriminalizing marijuana. Even in the US there is movement. The legislatures of New York State, California and Massachusetts have begun to reconsider overly punitive drug laws. Senators Jim Webb and Arlen Specter recently proposed Congress create a national commission to explore prison reform and drug-sentencing policy.
- Large gap between ideology and research or evidence: Here the Cato report, along with the data coming out of the Downtown Eastside around Insite and NAOMI trials is most devastating. The rhetoric around law & order does not stack up against the results. Consider that in Portugal after decriminalization (pulled from this Time Magazine article on the report)
- lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%; drug use in older teens also declined. (a 33% drop!!!)
- lifetime heroin use among 16-to-18-year-olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8% (although there was a slight increase in marijuana use in that age group). (a 25% drop!)
- new HIV infections in drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003, and deaths related to heroin and similar drugs were cut by more than half.
- the number of people on methadone and buprenorphine treatment for drug addiction rose to 14,877 from 6,040, after decriminalization, and money saved on enforcement allowed for increased funding of drug-free treatment as well. (150% increase in people seeking treatment!)
- Divides the left or right: Check out this Western Standard blog (possible the most conservative publication in Canada) in which a conservative columnist argues with a conservative reader about the evidence around ending prohibition. I never thought I’d see the day where a Western Standard columnist would explore the possibility of ending prohibition. Could endorsing harm reduction strategies be far behind?
- Unite odd factions from within the left and right: Could possible unite traditional left wing progressives with right-wing libertarians.
- Individual freedom is curtailed: Check. The literature of the impact of the “war on drugs” on civil liberties in the United States is vast.
- Growing impact on the public: drug violence in the US and Canada appears to be on the rise and a bordering country, Mexico, is becoming unstable. Much like alchohol prohibition in the 30’s at some point the public is going to connect gang violence with drugs – at which point a wider debate may become possible.
Do I think drug prohibition is going to end tomorrow? Absolutely not. But I won’t be surprised if we see movement at the local and state/provincial level this issue. Indeed, I believe it has been gaining traction for some time.
Follow the link to get a free copy of the Cato Institute’s study “Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies.”