California Lawmakers Are Being Hypocritical About 'Harm Reduction' Policies

The state is prioritizing harm-reduction approaches for drug users. That's great. So why are lawmakers taking a maximalist approach to punishing smokers?


Some California Democrats have recently discovered the concept of "harm reduction" when it comes to a variety of drug-related matters. As the National Harm Reduction Coalition explains, this idea "accepts, for better or worse, that licit and illicit drug use is part of our world and chooses to work to minimize its harmful effects."

Harm reduction is largely a reaction to the nation's failed War on Drugs, which treated drug use—including addictive and destructive hard drugs as well as non-addictive drugs that people use for recreational and medical purposes—as criminal matters. Unfortunately, many of the same people who tout this anti-Prohibitionist idea only apply it selectively, but more on that later.

In 1996, the conservative National Review noted that the War on Drugs "is diverting intelligent energy away from how to deal with the problem of addiction, that it is wasting our resources, and that it is encouraging civil, judicial, and penal procedures associated with police states." Harm reductionists agree with those prescient points.

Californians often get things wrong, but they have been right on this score. The same year National Review published that piece, our voters legalized medical marijuana. Then voters legalized recreational cannabis in 2016, although the new system is so highly taxed and regulated that the black market still thrives. Recently, legislators have proposed harm-reduction measures aimed at less-accepted drugs.

The California state legislature passed Senate Bill 57, which allows supervised injection sites in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The goal is to reduce drug overdoses by recognizing that certain people are going to use dangerous drugs no matter what. The governor vetoed the bill this week. Based on similar thinking, the state has operated syringe-exchange programs for decades.

San Francisco Sen. Scott Wiener's Senate Bill 517—delayed for consideration until next year—decriminalizes the use of plant-based psychedelics. The senator pitches his "mushroom bill" as a criminal-justice matter. He finds it foolhardy to arrest people for using these substances. I appreciate his non-Prohibitionist approach toward illicit substances, regardless of their potential ill effects.

Nevertheless, during a recent interview, Wiener doubled down on his co-sponsorship of Senate Bill 793, a new state law that bans the sale of flavored tobacco products. The tobacco industry has qualified for the November ballot Proposition 31, which is a referendum on the new law. As with all referenda, the law has been put on hold until voters decide.

By banning flavored tobacco, the state is criminalizing the sale of almost all vaping products except the few that taste (blech) like tobacco, as well as the sale of lower-harm smokeless tobacco products such snus and Zyn, which typically come in flavors (peppermint, cinnamon, coffee). This is the opposite of the harm-reduction approach.

When it comes to hard drugs, the state's Democrats insist that we shouldn't judge people who use them, but should instead seek ways to help them and certainly not arrest them. They argue that legalizing or at least decriminalizing some drugs (cannabis, psychedelics) reduces potentially dangerous encounters with police. With tobacco, they are trying to criminalize a legal product.

That means more efforts by police to crack down on black-market sellers. It means sting operations, fines, and even potential jail time for lawbreakers (especially in African American neighborhoods, where menthol cigarettes are popular and will likely be sold illegally on street corners as "loosies"). Menthol smokes are dangerous, but the crackdown ensnares the less-dangerous products that smokers use to break their deadly habit.

Progressive supporters of the flavored-tobacco ban use the same "it's for the children" lingo that old-time right-wing drug warriors used. The referendum, said SB 793 sponsor Jerry Hill, is Big Tobacco's attempt to "buy for themselves the right to market highly addictive nicotine products to our kids." By contrast, I suppose the people who sell heroin to supervised drug users are just public-spirited individuals.

Black market sellers of anything aren't particularly careful about checking the age of buyers, whereas regulated markets do a better job keeping adult-only substances away from youth. And it's bizarre to ban legal products to keep them away from underage people who already are not legally allowed to buy them. But for some reason, substance wars distort the thinking of normally sensible people.

When it comes to drugs, harm reduction supporters argue that we shouldn't follow the federal government's lead, given that the slow-moving feds still consider marijuana a Schedule 1 drug "with no currently accepted medical use" similar to heroin. When it comes to tobacco, they insist that the Food and Drug Administration's failure to recognize vaping as a tobacco-cessation strategy is the Gospel truth.

Instead of sympathizing with smokers who want to reduce smoking's harm, they belittle them by insisting that the only appropriate harm-reduction approaches are abstinence—or the dreary ones (patches, pills, inhalers) approved by the FDA. No wonder a cynic might conclude that many supporters of drug-related harm-reduction policies simply are hypocrites.

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.