Not long ago, governments prohibited behaviour that was bad for its citizenry, like gambling and smoking pot. But now, government seems to encourage it, to the detriment of society.
In gambling, those insufficiently aware of statistical probabilities are induced to lose money to those with a deeper knowledge of the odds – a sort of tax on the stupid.
For complicated reasons, certain types of gambling was allowed – parimutuel betting on horse races, owning a ticket on the Irish Sweepstakes – but no one could open a casino, sell lottery tickets, operate a betting parlour or run a numbers racket.
Governments knew that the poor were the primary victims and that a certain proportion of gamblers would ruin their lives and those of their families by becoming addicted.
Then along came the 1976 Montreal Olympics, which was expected to incur an astonishing debt. So the regime of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau changed laws to allow a lottery to pay off the money owed.
Provinces followed suit and governments were soon as addicted to gambling revenue (over $13 billion a year) – much like the poor slob spending his children’s milk money on the horses or the seniors hunched over the VLTs with their stacks of quarters.
Welcome to “the range of serious personal and social harms such as depression and suicide, bankruptcy, family breakup, domestic abuse, assault, fraud, theft, and even homelessness,” which the Canada Safety Council associates with problem gambling.
Not long ago, the federal government outlawed the production and consumption of the byproducts of plants of the genus cannabis. Despite this prohibition, many Canadians indulged in marijuana and hashish, so much so that the federal government decided that what society really needed was freer access to another psychotropic substance known to cause brain damage, fetal malformation and lung infection.
We would all benefit, we were assured, from taxing dope, freeing up police resources and increased safety of the product.
Instead, the obvious happened: the black market continues, undercutting the cost of government-sanctioned weed, revenues aren’t materializing as predicted, the police seem to be no less busy, and a new variety of impaired driver has hit the streets.
Colorado, where the stuff has been legal for five years, reports an increase in organized crime, traffic fatalities and rates of hospitalization.
Not long ago, government frowned on citizens injecting themselves with, snorting, smoking or inhaling a wide variety of mind-altering drugs. These substances produce temporary pleasure and longer-term brain and body decay and death.
Junkies, the rather cruel name for addicts, colonized whole sections of inner cities, producing a street life marked by human waste, prone bodies and a plethora of used needles.
Well-meaning activists hoped to aid those afflicted by providing safe injection sites, or ‘supervised consumption centres,’ where in a judgment-free atmosphere addicts could shoot up with free needles, sterile water and alcohol wipes, and be close to (but not bothered by) social workers who could, perhaps, move them to a healthier lifestyle.
In return, society would be rid of the sight of public consumption and enjoy needle-free sidewalks and parks.
Proponents claim success but local residents remain unimpressed, pointing to the increase of discarded needles and the presence of less-than-desirable folk drawn to the injection sites.
The opioid crisis, with its explosion of overdose deaths, has prompted more calls to aid addicts by decriminalizing their use of dangerous drugs. And the federal government as part of its “compassionate, collaborative, comprehensive and evidence-based” approach to the problem urges citizens to help by “listening with compassion and without judgment, so a person who uses drugs feels heard and understood; speaking up when someone is being treated disrespectfully because of their substance use, and being kind with the words you use. Words matter. Use people first language.”
I must demur from this hug-a-junkie stance. Not because I’m particularly unsympathetic but because public policy is heading in a dangerous direction. Here is an iron law of human behaviour, as true 4,000 years ago in the shadows of the Great Pyramid of Giza as it is in the back alleys of today’s Vancouver: what you subsidize you get more of.
You don’t discourage bad behaviour by making it easier and more pleasant to engage in.
Moral hazard, a concept derived from economics, states that individuals have incentives to act in certain ways when the cost of bad decision-making is borne by others.
The harm reduction attitude may well reduce the number of drug-users from dying of overdoses, but it won’t reduce the number of abusers or the criminals who thrive off their addictions.
We don’t discourage dangerous behaviour by finding nicer words to describe it.
Gerry Bowler is a Canadian historian and a senior fellow of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.