Thursday, 21 June 2007

A Trip to the Chocolate Factory

You may have noticed I missed a couple of weeks posting to my blog. We have had visitors for the last two weeks and I have neglected the blog.

My daughter was up from Toronto York University visiting and we went to visit the Hershey Chocolate Shoppe in Smiths Falls. The factory shoppe is a chocolate lovers dream come true and the prices are better than retail and they throw in a free chocolate bar or two with every purchase.

However, the Hershey Chocolate Factory is closing while Hershey is opening a new plant in Mexico.

This is just another example of how the capitalist market works. But sometimes we forget that it works that way because we let it and we let it because we have lost our sense of community. We would rather buy cheaper chocolates than provide jobs for our neighbours. Not all of our money goes to low wages, of course. Besides high profits, much of it is paid to high paid advertising gurus to convince us to buy products in the first place.

Communities across North America complain about the impact Wal-Mart will have on their local businesses . If local people care about their local businesses all they have to do is continue to shop at them. So why do we not do that. Why do we all flock to the huge Wal-Mart instead. Why do we watch local clothing and shoe factories close while we buy cheap goods from abroad. Are we that greedy. Do we just not care.

Much more than money and jobs is at stake here. If we rebuilt our sense of community I have no doubt that the results would astound us, mental health problems would decline, crime rates and vandalism would decline, quality of life would improve and everyone would be happier and feel more secure.

We can start by saying “hi” to our neighbours next time we walk down the street. If indeed we do walk down the street and not drive to the corner store, if we have one. But that is another whole column.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Is The War on Drugs a War on the Poor

Canada’s ideological Harper government has decided that the best way to fight crime and the drug problem is to emulate the policies of the country with the biggest crime and drug problem rather than follow the lead of countries with lower crime rates and less of a drug problem.

Despite the romanticism of the sixties left with marijuana and psychedelic drugs the dependence on drugs for escape, recreation or creativity is never a good thing. We can debate whether marijuana is no worse than alcohol or whether tobacco is worse than marijuana or whether the new marijuana is worse than the old marijuana till the cows come home.

The bottom line is that natural highs are always better than artificial ones. Getting high on life is better than getting high on drugs (or money or status, etc.).

That all being said, the criminal justice approach to the drug problem, and in particular the zero tolerance approach of the United States that the Harper government wants to emulate, is clearly a failure.

It is very clear that how we treat drug users depends very much on social class.

Although caffeine is clearly a drug, we do not treat it as one because it is the drug most widely used by all classes. People who use coffee do feel dependant on it and do report withdrawal symptoms when unable to feed their habit. Coffee drinkers and other caffeine users use it as a drug, as a stimulant, whether to study or to work long hours. But it is not classed as a drug by society because of it’s wide use, particularly among decision makers.

Alcohol and tobacco are two more example of drugs used by masses, including the middle and upper classes that are treated differently than drugs primarily used by the poor.

Alcohol is the major social drug of our society, Alcohol is a social drink, but it is also used as a drug to alter ones state of consciousness, whether to reduce inhibitions in a social setting or to just get “drunk” That altered state of consciousness can lead to a reduced ability to reason and to impaired physical functions. The biggest impact of this has been the carnage on our roads due to impaired driving.

There have been attempts to ban alcohol consumption such as during the Prohibition period in the United States, which proved to be an unsuccessful as the current War on Drugs.

Smoking was the other dominant socially acceptable drug habit in our society. It is becoming less so as fewer people smoke, and particularly as fewer people in the decision-making higher and more educated classes smoke. The decrease in smoking came as a result of learning of the health risks. However we can clearly see that legislative restrictions against smoking only came about after there was a trend to stop smoking among the decision-making wealthier classes. Once smoking became a habit of the poor, rather than everyone, it became acceptable to legislate against it.

Criminal sanctions are reserved for the drugs of the poor, the so-called hard drugs. These are drugs that victimize their users. These are drugs that destroy users lives and eventually kill them. Yet our government’s approach to the drug problem is to further victimize and criminalize those addicted to drugs. While the aim of the approach is supposedly to target those making money from the drug trade the zero tolerance approach makes no distinction between victimized and victimizer. The American approach is a massive failure yet our government still wants to emulate it.
Have we not learned that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".

It is not that we do not have lessons to learn from. The history of our approach to alcohol and smoking has shown us that criminalization does not work and that education does.

Our approach to impaired driving did involve increased criminal sanctions as a necessity because, unlike hard drugs where the main victims are the users themselves, impaired driving kills innocent third parties. However the transformation of impaired driving from a socially acceptable practice to an unacceptable one was mainly the result of education and the changing of social attitudes.

The massive reduction in the percentage of people smoking is clearly the result of massive public health education campaigns. We see that reflected in the fact that smoking rates decline as education levels increase.

So how do we apply these lesson to the drug problem of the poor.

First we need to examine our motives. It is clear that our motives for the War on Drugs are to address the problems drug use causes for the wealthier classes and not it’s impact on the socially marginalized poor. We are not concerned because these drugs are destroying lives and killing people. We are concerned because the addicted victims of these drug problems turn to crime to feed their habit. We see the crime as the problem because it’s victims are middle and upper class.

It is this motivation that causes society not to care that the War on Drugs only revictimizes the worst victims of the drug problem, the addicts. It seems that only the secondary victims, the middle class victims of the crimes count. Of course tackling the real problem and helping the real victims is much more difficult than fighting a war against them. More importantly these victims acre marginalized in society, have very little economic and social influence and have virtually no political power and very low voting rates.

Their very social marginalization and poverty is what makes them easily susceptible to the lure of drugs as an escape from their lives of desperation. Although the War on Drugs supposedly targets those that victimize them, the zero tolerance approach of its implementation fails to distinguish between the victims and the victimizers. More importantly the criminal justice approach of the War on Drugs fails to address the underlying social conditions that make them vulnerable to victimization.

We need a multi-pronged approach to the problem. I do not pretend to have all the answers but I do know what some of the things that need to be done are.

First we need to recognize that drug addiction is primarily a social and medical problem.

We need to find innovative ways to reach the youth in poor communities to educate them about the risks of drug use without preaching to them about how much better middle class society is than the world they live in.

We have to reach those that are addicted and provide them with the resources to overcome their addictions. Reaching them is the most difficult step. These are people that see the social establishment as the enemy, because it treats them as the enemy.

That is why harm reduction programs, such as needle exchange and safe injection sites, that reach out to these victims are so important. Not only do they save lives by reducing HIV and Hepatitis but they bring the addicted into contact with those that truly want to help them overcome their addictions.

More importantly we have to provide these desperate people with the help they need when they ask for it. All too often the window of opportunity when someone is ready to seek help is very short. Telling them they have to wait weeks or months to get into treatment is no better than refusing them treatment. We must be willing to provide the treatment resources necessary to allow people into treatment immediately. The long term costs of not doing that are much greater than the short term costs of doing it.

However, the most important thing we can do to reduce the number of addicted persons is to address their desperate social conditions. A true War on Poverty would be the most effective War on Crime and War on Drugs that ever could be.

We need to shift our emphasis from going to war against the victims of drug addiction to providing help to them.