The Canadian government announced last week that it will be exempting the province of British Columbia from certain federal drug laws. Specifically, possession of less than a cumulative 2.5 grams of opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, or MDMA will be decriminalized in the province.
The move comes on the heels of a dramatic surge in overdose deaths in the province. An estimated 2,224 people died in BC in 2021 due to suspected illicit-drug overdoses. It was the deadliest year on record, and a 26 percent increase over 2020’s death toll of 1,765.
Proponents of the move say this is an important step toward treating addiction as a health issue rather than a criminal issue. In particular, they hope that this exemption will encourage more people to seek help.
“The fear of being criminalized has led many people to hide their addiction and use drugs alone,” said Sheila Malcolmson, BC’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. “And using drugs alone can mean dying alone, particularly in this climate of tragically increased illicit drug toxicity.”
While this seems to be a step in the right direction for the federal government, the obvious question that now hangs over them is “why only BC?” After all, if a move like this is a good idea to combat drug overdoses in one province, surely it’s also a good idea in the rest of Canada?
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh made this exact point in parliament the day after the announcement.
“Experts agree that a criminal approach will not save lives, and we need a healthcare-based approach,” said Singh. “Now the Prime Minister has agreed to take a healthcare-based approach by decriminalizing personal possession in BC. But if that approach is good in BC, why won’t the Prime Minister support our bill to bring a healthcare approach for the rest of Canada, to save lives across our country?”
Speaking like a true politician, Trudeau responded by saying, “it is not a simple solution like proposed by the NDP, it’s a complex solution.”
To translate for those who don’t speak Politician, what Trudeau is saying is that it isn’t yet politically expedient to decriminalize these drugs in the rest of the country. BC can get away with it because they are on the “left coast,” a veritable bastion of progressivism that is basically Canada’s equivalent to California (and Portland and Seattle…you get the picture). But at this point, the political will just isn’t yet there in provinces like Ontario and Quebec. Maybe it will be one day, at which point you can be sure Trudeau will describe decriminalization as a simple, self-evident solution.
Suffice it to say, this move has reignited the moral debate underlying the War on Drugs. Social conservatives argue that even possession of hard drugs like these should be outlawed, because drug use is immoral in their view and because it often has harmful effects on others.
Social liberals, on the other hand, assert individual freedom of choice. They argue that locking up non-violent drug users is what’s truly immoral, and that criminalizing hard drugs causes harm because it discourages drug users from seeking help.
While I am personally a staunch social liberal, I find that the people in “our camp” on this debate don’t always make the best arguments because they don’t have a good understanding of the principles underlying the social liberal position.
Fortunately, the American individualist and essayist Lysander Spooner (1808-1887) penned a great piece in 1875 that gives us an arsenal of compelling, principled arguments to draw from.
Spooner’s essay, entitled Vices Are Not Crimes, challenges the reader to go back to their first principles and re-examine the very definition of a crime. Usually, we think of a “crime” as being anything the government outlaws. But for Spooner, a “crime” is more of a philosophical category, one with a strict, immutable definition.
“Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property,” writes Spooner. “Crimes are those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another. Vices are simply the errors which a man makes in his search after his own happiness. Unlike crimes, they imply no malice toward others, and no interference with their persons or property. In vices, the very essence of crime—that is, the design to injure the person or property of another—is wanting.”
Drawing on these category definitions, Spooner argues that “for a government to declare a vice to be a crime, and to punish it as such, is an attempt to falsify the very nature of things.” Indeed, as he points out later in the essay, the punishment of vices is itself a “crime” in this sense, because it is a violent interference with someone else’s person or property.
Now, a typical response from social conservatives is to point out that vices such as drug use do, in fact, cause harm to others. Users that are high undoubtedly take a toll on the well-being of those around them, not to mention the financial burden they impose on social safety nets.
This is a fair point, but it conflates two senses of the word “harm.” What Spooner is referring to is property-rights violations. Of course, people who practice vices can still cause harm in that they have negative effects on those around them. But that is not the same thing as physically interfering with someone else’s person or property, which, in Spooner’s view, is the only kind of behavior that can be legitimately prohibited.
But perhaps we should still restrict drug use on account of these social harms, even if they aren’t technically aggressive acts. It’s a tempting proposal, but it invites a rather awkward question. If “social harm” is enough to justify prohibition, where should the line be drawn? Alcohol consumption creates a great deal of social harm. Should that be outlawed too? And what about all the other vices? If we’re being honest, every vice carries a certain amount of social harm, even if the vice is simply having a poor diet.
Spooner shows us where this line of thinking leads.
“If government is to take cognizance of any of these vices, and punish them as crimes, then, to be consistent, it must take cognizance of all, and punish all impartially. The consequence would be that everybody would be in prison for his or her vices. There would be no one left outside to lock the doors upon those within.”
“A government that shall punish all vices impartially is so obviously an impossibility that nobody was ever found, or ever will be found, foolish enough to propose it. The most that any one proposes is, that government shall punish some one, or at most a few, of what he esteems the grossest of them. But this discrimination is an utterly absurd, illogical, and tyrannical one. What right has any body of men to say, ‘The vices of other men we will punish; but our own vices nobody shall punish. We will restrain other men from seeking their own happiness according to their own notions of it; but nobody shall restrain us from seeking our own happiness according to our own notions of it.’…Nobody but knaves or blockheads ever thinks of making such absurd assumptions as these. And yet, evidently, it is only upon such assumptions that anybody can claim the right to punish the vices of others, and at the same time claim exemption from punishment for his own.”
At its core, social liberalism is about recognizing that none of us are perfect. We all have our vices, and we all hurt those around us because of them. In light of this, it’s simply not right to punish others for their vices while maintaining that our own should go unpunished.
As Jesus said, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
This article was adapted from an issue of the FEE Daily email newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free-market news and analysis like this in your inbox every weekday.
Patrick Carroll has a degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Waterloo and is an Editorial Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education.
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