A recent story on Colorado Politics got me thinking yet again about the libertarian streak I think we all have, to one degree or another. Now, most people accept there is a role for government and that there are fundamental freedoms upon which the government must not intrude. The problems, of course, come where those areas intersect. The problem is never simply a single fundamental right. Rather, it is when perceived fundamental rights come into conflict with each other.
In the story, ace CP reporter Joey Bunch details the Denver City Council’s 12-1 vote to approve a pilot program to create a safe place for addicts to inject or otherwise consume drugs, to include meth and heroin. Generally, what consenting adults want to do with their own bodies, assuming it does not impact others, is something I think the government should stay out of. Back when I was growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, my town changed the fine for simple pot possession from a major crime to a $5 ticket. The results were, by and large, positive, in that cops were freed from chasing people smoking marijuana and could go after perps in more serious crimes. I think Colorado did the right thing, in largely transforming an illegal market in pot into one that can be regulated and taxed. But I admit to not being entirely comfortable with the idea of “hard” drugs receiving similar consideration.
Denver will (if the state legislature provides the needed alterations to existing law) become among the first US cities to allow such safe injections spaces. But Denver would not be the first city to do it on the continent. Several years ago, Vancouver set up a supervised injection site. A story from a Canadian paper outlines that program, and offers the plusses and minuses of such an action.
Those in favor of such sites argue that having safe places to consume drugs saves lives. The Vancouver authorities report zero overdose deaths at their site since it opened in 2003, and when there have been problems, they can intervene medically, as they did roughly 200 times over the same time period. Proponents also argue that such sites can serve as a bridge to treatment, as addicts will be in a clean safe place with access to help, rather than an abandoned house or back alley. Supporters also point out that there has not been an increase in crime, has been a decrease in HIV infection rates, and has made neighborhoods — where addicts used to go — safer. All that sounds good, right?
Opponents pointed out in Canada, as would be the case in the U.S., such sites are largely in violation of federal law. With Schedule 1 drugs, any “safe site” would be technically a crime scene. They argue that rather than spend money on a safe site, the money could have been better spent on directly helping addicts recover.
Who’s right? I honestly don’t know. But I am reminded of an analogy: abstinence-only sex ed. If you make the argument that the only way to stop pre-marital sex is abstinence, well, you are whistling in the dark. You may have heard the joke — what do you call the parents of kids in abstinence only sex ed? Grandparents. And with drugs, I fear it is the same. Addicts are, regardless of the situation, going to take drugs – that’s why they are called addicts. Just as teens will have sex, drug users will use drugs, and no program that pretends the inverse will be successful.
But there is a significant federal barrier, I suspect, to Denver’s program. It’s hard to imagine any Trump-appointed U.S. attorney general would tolerate, let alone support, such a program. For all the “states’ rights” talk from the GOP, and the arguments that the states should be the “laboratories of democracy,” I can’t see the GOP actually embracing the more libertarian position required to create such safe sites. Yes, it’s hypocrisy, but that’s kind of the watchword of Mr. Trump’s administration.
So, dear readers, where you stand likely depends on how wide or narrow your libertarian streak is, and, frankly, if you’ve had any personal experience on the issue. It’s not uncommon for liberals and conservatives to have blind spots in their orthodoxy when personal experience kicks in.
I think I’m ok with these sites, but I’m not completely sure they are a good idea. It does seem to me that this site in Denver will save lives, likely help clean up a neighborhood or two, and those are not bad things. Rights in conflict are tricky, and rarely offer neat and clean solutions.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.