01/28/2007 05:42 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Doing Drugs the Right Way

Nestled between soaring mountains and the ocean, Vancouver is as
pleasant a city as you'll ever find - especially if you're an illegal
drug user. Beset in recent years by a flood of narcotics accompanied by surging overdoses and HIV infections, Canada's third-largest city has radically overhauled its police and social services practices to reframe drug use as primarily a public health issue, not a criminal one. Result: Vancouver is now by far the continent's most drug-tolerant city, launching an experiment dramatically at odds with the bitter War on Drugs waged by its southern neighbor.

Marijuana has been effectively decriminalized. The famous "B.C. bud",
rivaled in potency only by California's finest, is sold and smoked so
openly that the city has earned the nickname "Vansterdam". The city
has taken an even more surprising approach to harder drugs. It runs
the biggest needle exchange program in North America. It recently
opened the continent's only "safe injection" site, where addicts can
shoot up in a supervised setting. If that weren't enough, municipal
health officials recently began handing out prescription injectable
heroin to addicts, and clean mouthpieces for crack pipes.

This enthusiastic embrace of what is known as the "harm reduction"
approach to substance abuse is a world away from the U.S., where
punishment is the preferred response. Mandatory minimum sentencing and
"three strikes" laws have sent the number of drug offenders in our
prisons skyrocketing in recent years; there are more inmates locked up
now on narcotics charges - over
half a million
- than the total of ALL prisoners in 1980. The
cost: billions of dollars annually. The benefit: practically none.
Most offenders are released with their addictions untreated and soon
wind up back behind bars.

In Vancouver, meanwhile, the early indicators are much more
encouraging. Nearly 600 people a day are now using the safe injection
site. Overdose deaths, which averaged 147 a year in the 1990s, have
dropped by almost half. And infection rates for HIV/AIDS and hepatitis
C have both plummeted.

At the same time, however, other drug-related problems are getting
worse. Increasingly violent gangs battling for control of the trade
have claimed over 60 lives in the past six years - major carnage by
the standards of this generally peaceful town. Methamphetamine
seizures have grown tenfold. Surveys report that drug use is higher in
British Columbia than in the rest of Canada, and that almost half of
all Vancouverites consider drugs a major problem in their communities
- a figure double that for residents of Canada's biggest cities,
Toronto and Montreal.

Vancouver, in short, has essentially become a gigantic field-test for
harm reduction policies, a million-person laboratory half an hour's
drive from the U.S. that is yielding valuable lessons on the costs and
benefits of such a strategy - lessons that American policy makers and
activists alike should be studying carefully.

The whole experiment is under growing pressure. Canada's recently
elected Conservative prime minister has vowed to take a harder line on
drugs, and has specifically denounced Vancouver's safe injection
site. The Bush administration is cheering him on. To them, Vancouver
sets a dangerous example of tolerance for illegal substances. In fact,
it's providing an unprecedented opportunity for Americans to see what
strategies might actually work as alternatives to our own decades-long
and still losing battle with drugs.