Canada
3 min

In defence of drug dealers, pimps and liars

Lessons from harm-reduction politics

Some drug dealers are saints. Pimps and johns can be model citizens. Using illegal drugs is, in some cases, better than not using them. Honesty is not always the best policy.

As the possibilities of change reverberate across the land just south of our border, it’s worth considering how our common-sense notions about sex and drugs are also long overdue for an overhaul.

Since I started research and reporting on harm reduction a few years ago, I’ve learned a lot about how our assumptions — and our laws — don’t always have the best interests of individuals or society as a whole at heart. Sometimes you just need to scratch the surface a bit though.

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Drug use itself is value-neutral. It does not indicate any kind of moral failing. If anything, it could be argued that making a choice in the face of legal and social barriers indicates the positive values of perseverance and self-assurance.

Of course things aren’t always that simple, especially since some substances can be highly problematic for some people. That’s true whether we’re talking about marijuana, acid, ecstasy or GHB — or drugs that, according to the medical journal The Lancet, are more addictive and more harmful, such as alcohol and tobacco.

So some drug use can involve health risks, which, it could be argued, can come in conflict with the value of self-preservation. In this way, it’s part of a continuum of risk along with other potentially dangerous activities like driving a motor vehicle.

In cases where people are self-medicating to deal with the effects of poverty, discrimination or abuse, they may feel the risks are worth the benefits. And yes, drug use can be beneficial, when seen in context, if it’s the only thing that makes you feel better, and one of the few things that may be in your power to control.

As Chris Gibson from Toronto men’s hostel Seaton House once explained it, “Drugs create feelings of well-being. Stopping drug use is going to allow them to wake up every day and be clearly aware of that fact that they have no education, they have nowhere to live, and they have limited prospects — which seem like really good reasons to use drugs.” The hard truth is that a lot of other things in our society need to be changed before we can ever hope to reduce the self-harm associated with some drug use.

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“I’ve lied about my HIV status when asked about it,” says one man I interviewed for a story in another publication. He told me that he felt justified not sharing his medical status with sexual partners.

“I will never give my virus to anyone else,” he tells me, pointing out that he has sex regularly but only performs oral sex, never receives it, and otherwise only engages in kissing and body contact. According to the AIDS Committee of Toronto, a person with HIV performing oral on someone else poses “no real risk of HIV infection.”

So if asked point-blank if he’s positive, he sometimes says no. Why? “I’m the one who is endangered if that information gets out, not the other guy. I want to live my life — hopefully a long one — in peace.” He says he’s heard malicious gossip about other people with HIV, and doesn’t want to fall prey to it himself.

I see his point, especially about the unfair burden of stigma on folks with HIV. There is a bias in our culture — even, perhaps especially, among many gay men — that says that people with HIV are dishonest, untrustworthy and immoral. Otherwise, so the warped logic goes, how would they have ended up with the virus in the first place?

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Another social bias purports that anyone who would sell illicit drugs is a dangerous and amoral person who tricks people into addiction and preys upon their weakened state. But many of the harms related to using and selling drugs — including the involvement of organized crime, exorbitant costs and inconsistent quality control, and dangers that arise from using drugs quickly to avoid detection — all stem specifically from the legal status of illicit drugs rather than anything intrinsic to the substances themselves.

Two drug dealers from BC are taking public-safety minister Stockwell Day to court, it was announced last month, because he refused to allow them to be transferred from the US back home to serve their sentences. By law a Canadian can request to serve his or her time at home, but Day is in the habit of making exceptions, most lumping together drug-related crimes and child-sex abuse as barriers to repatriation.

They include 18-year-old Winnie Lam, who was put behind bars in California for seven years for bringing 1,000 ecstasy pills across the border. According to reports, the young woman was motivated by a desire to be more popular at raves. At any rate, I’m having trouble seeing her as a threat to public safety in Canada.

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What these examples have in common is that they highlight how stigma, moralism and legal opprobrium get in the way of fairness and reason. Along similar lines, sex workers have also raised concerns about how their clients and business associates are unfairly impugned.

One antidote would be to listen to people’s lived experience and work together toward a shared understanding, rather than relying on the universal proscriptions of religion, the media or the law-and-order agenda of politicians and agencies of social control. Can we succeed in changing the way society thinks about our rights to control our bodies and our lives? To borrow a line from Barack Obama: Yes, we can.