Researchers at the University of British Columbia have made a compelling case that drug prohibition and backwards welfare rules increase criminal activity.
A team led by Kora DeBeck and Thomas Kerr surveyed injection drug users in the Vancouver area. They asked, "If you didn't need the money to pay for your drug use, are there any sources of income in the last 30 days that you would eliminate?"
In that study, 62 percent of sex workers and 41 percent of drug dealers said that they would cease their criminal activities if they did not need the extra income for drugs.
It may seem obvious that streetwalkers don't like their jobs. However, a scientific study like this is exactly the sort of evidence that is necessary to change public policy. The researchers were able to eloquently use their findings to highlight the shortcomings of Canadian laws and social services. That critique, and the results of their survey, will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence .
DeBeck and Kerr began with a simple argument; seizures and arrests by law enforcement agencies raise drug prices. This makes it hard for serious addicts to afford their habits without resorting to prostitution, drug dealing, panhandling, binning, and other illegal activities.
By disrupting drug markets and increasing risks involved in producing and distributing illegal substances, prohibition-based drug enforcement policies play a role in inflating drug prices, which in turn induces active IDU (injection drug users) with high intensity addictions to engage in prohibited income generating behavior to finance their drug use. While the ultimate objective of inducing high drug prices is to deter drug use, this analysis and a growing body of research indicates that the unintended consequences of these enforcement-based policies produce significant harm for drug using individuals and broader society.
Here is the biggest policy dilemma: people that receive financial assistance from the government will lose their support if they earn more than a minuscule amount from legitimate sources. This standard, intended to keep checks out of the hands of people that don't need them, may also strongly discourage the rightful recipients from pursuing normal work. Since there are no records of the illegal transactions, the drug dealers and sex workers can have their cake and eat it too.
Furthermore, the current structure of social assistance in Canada is such that recipients will lose their income benefits if they begin to earn above $400 per month through legitimate work, leaving this population with limited income generating options beyond resorting to prohibited sources.
At the end of their report, the scholars offered several more ways to keep problematic dependent users out of trouble: increase the availability of low-end jobs, make heroin available by prescription, and offer methadone or stimulant substitutes for free.
One method of trying to reduce engagement in prohibited income generation among drug user populations with severe addictions is to expand their economic opportunities. This would involve supporting the development of legitimate means of earning income through various low threshold employment opportunities and skill building measures. A recent intervention designed to economically empower drug addicted sex trade workers to develop alternative legitimate sources of income has been shown to have a positive influence on reducing involvement in the sex trade industry. Alternatively, policy makers could intervene by providing addiction prescription and substitution therapies to individuals with markers of serious addiction to decrease their reliance on, and subsequent need to purchase, street drugs. This could be achieved in part through heroin prescription programs and by expanding substitution therapies including methadone maintenance.
this is an edited version of guest article on Respectacle by Aaron Rowe