Skip to content

Constraining pain medication will only worsen drug problem

Limiting access to alcohol led to chaos during the Prohibition. Will constraining opioids do the same?

There are so many reasons to be very glad that we live in Canada – one of the main is that we’re governed by the rule of law.

Laws and the rules and regulations that underpin them are enacted by democratically-elected governments. They’re enforced and upheld by police and courts that are amazingly upright and honest in a world that’s becoming increasingly corrupt.

Most Canadians are sufficiently law abiding most of the time that the whole system works well. We even get to self-report our income for tax purposes.

So governing a country of good, law-abiding Canadians should be easy. Just pass a law against anything bad and watch it disappear.

We’ve all heard and maybe used the common expression, “There ought to be a law!” Alas, it’s not quite that simple. If it were, the first law I would want passed is against the common cold. We know people, not cold germs, are subject to our legal system.

And you don’t have to go to dictatorships and failed states to find examples of ordinary people not obeying laws. This usually happens when law-makers forget the Talmudic wisdom that says we shouldn’t pass a law that people won’t obey. The ancient scholars realized that threatens the entire legal system.

One example of a law that people weren’t prepared to follow was that against alcohol at the beginning of the last century, usually referred to as Prohibition.

Drinking alcohol isn’t necessary and can cause much harm. Therefore, it was made illegal.

However, many – if not most – people weren’t prepared to give up the long-established cultural practice of social drinking,

Alcohol consumption still occurred, but it was now illegal and uncontrolled. It enriched criminals who produced and distributed alcohol. It made criminals of otherwise respectable citizens who chose to have a drink. And it threatened public safety with bootleg and occasionally poisonous drinks.

The repeal of Prohibition, along with the regulation and control of the production and sale of alcohol, eventually reduced the harm of a bad law.

Using laws or other systems to force abortions on unwilling women – common in China under the one-child policy – is an ultimate denial of a very basic freedom.

On the other hand, passing laws that deny abortions under almost all circumstances is an example of a law that denies a degree of freedom.

Such laws have resulted in uncontrolled and unregulated activity with a lack of oversight and safety procedures, resulting in much injury and death.

Laws such as those prohibiting alcohol and abortion are defied when people have a strong and overriding reason to disobey them. One very strong motivating factor is pain. The desire to reduce or eliminate pain soon overrides many other considerations. It’s a mark of a civilized society that the suffering of its citizens be minimized, just as evil regimes are defined by the suffering of their people.

However, we haven’t been able to effectively enforce laws against the use of uncontrolled street drugs. Such drugs are often laced with substances that have resulted in enough deaths to lower life expectancy figures for the entire population.

Since we haven’t found a way to more effectively enforce laws against street drugs, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia has passed a series of requirements to make it much harder for doctors to offer pain-relieving drugs to legitimate patients who desperately need them.

The reason for this plan – which will seriously harm those in extreme and intractable pain – is that it will lead to fewer prescription drugs on the streets.

The results, if we’ve learned anything from Prohibition and other unenforceable laws, might be quite the reverse. Those suffering and not able to get legal pain relief through the medical system will be forced to seek relief wherever they can find it, often by turning to street drugs.

If they’re lucky, their pain might be eased. If not, their pain might end with another opioid death.

Troy Media columnist Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and speaker.