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British Columbia TED speaker shares family tragedy to show drug bans ‘not effective and ... not ethical’

Bruce Haden speaks at TED2015 on Wednesday, March 18, 2015 at the Vancouver Convention Centre.

Bret Hartman/TED

Bruce Haden is an award-winning Vancouver-based architect. On Wednesday, he spoke at the TED conference – not about architecture or urban design, but about drug policy. He called for a move away from controlling drug use by making it illegal, and moving to a different system of regulation.

"The supporters of the current policy of prohibition have had their time to make it work and they have failed," he said. "Drug interdiction is not effective and it's not ethical."

Mr. Haden's knowledge of this issue was not learned in school or from reading a story in the newspaper. It hit him in the gut on June 7, 2008, when he could not reach his younger brother, with whom he was supposed to be having dinner. He went to his brother's three-storey stucco walk-up apartment in Kitsilano with his girlfriend to look for him.

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"As we climbed the stairs, we noticed a terrible chemical stench. His doorway was blocked by a heavy object," he told the silent TED audience. "That object was his body."

Paul Haden was a respected hospital lab technologist who loved science, his brother explained. He was also a manufacturer of illegal drugs, principally MDMA – or ecstasy. He died purifying 2.2 kilograms of dirty street ecstasy in his kitchen.

He was not driven by financial considerations (even if he did make money doing it), Mr. Haden says. Rather, his core passion was a commitment to a safe supply for ecstasy users.

"Paul was not a drug dealer in the usual sense; he was an activist. He believed that drug use was, like prostitution, an ingrained aspect of any advanced culture that could never be wiped out by prohibition. In his view, the greatest harm in our culture's relationship with drugs was the absence of a safe supply and a lack of honest information about responsible use and risks. This harm is a direct result of a system that treats matters of drugs and addiction as criminal justice matters, not as issues of health and education," Mr. Haden said to hoots and applause from the well-heeled and educated TED crowd.

"Put another way, he knew that kids were going to do 'E' at raves no matter how many cops you have on the street. And he thought those kids should know what they were getting."

Mr. Haden says his brother, who worked at Burnaby General Hospital, was no hero – he lied about his drug use, and his final actions forced his neighbours to evacuate their homes for two days. (The beakers of chemicals boiling on his stove top also meant the contents of his own apartment were so toxic they had to be destroyed. The family could not even recover photos from his computer hard drive.) But his brother's death, at the age of 44, has led Mr. Haden to become an advocate himself and fight for changes in drug policy.

"There is a direct line between the death of my brother, at least 10 recent and completely avoidable deaths in Western Canada caused by toxic dirty ecstasy, millions of lives ruined by incarceration, gang violence and more than 50,000 vicious drug war deaths in Mexico and Central America," Mr. Haden said. "As creators of the current system of prohibition, those deaths are our responsibility. We have blood on our hands."

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Mr. Haden pointed out that his father, a successful psychiatrist, was also addicted to a substance – but because it was alcohol, and he had access to a reliable and clean supply of scotch, he was able to hold a job and raise a family and live his life. (Another brother, Mark Haden, is a drug and addiction counsellor and drug policy activist who focuses on the issue of gradated legalization.) Bruce Haden says he is speaking openly about Paul's death because he believes people with personal experience and credibility who are not necessarily experts about an issue can be important catalysts for change when they speak out.

"A strategy guided by public-health best practices that makes substances carefully available, but does not promote the use, is one that's proven to reduce use, abuse, addiction and the terrible social consequences of prohibition."

Mr. Haden has spoken about his brother and this issue before in Vancouver, but bringing it to the TED stage takes it to another level. "For me, this is a little bit of an act of service because the TED audience is so powerful," he told The Globe and Mail after his appearance.

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