While some people have habits the majority of us may find unacceptable, taking punitive measures to eliminate them often only serves to drive them underground. Sometimes it’s better to be pragmatic.
Take Prohibition, my favourite example of social engineering gone horribly wrong.
For 13 years, the U.S. federal government deemed “devil’s drink” illegal. It was a battle that eroded respect for the law and law enforcement. Enforcement was erratic, with some U.S. jurisdictions refusing to authorize police funding. It overburdened the court system, fuelled the growth of organized crime, and increased political corruption.
Some became very wealthy
It caused substantial economic harm to a number of related industries and put public health at risk – some of the bootleg stuff caused blindness, permanent organ damage and even death. In the end, it made some people very wealthy at the expense of everyone else and, perhaps more importantly, at the expense of respect for the rule of law.
Attempts by legal and legislative systems to manage and control our vices are nothing new, usually necessary and often ineffective. But where a vice causes harm to others, these control efforts must be done in a pragmatic way that is most likely to advance public and individual safety. Measures that are too restrictive risk creating an underground economy, which seems always destined to go hand-in-hand with increased criminal activity.
If the example of Prohibition is too removed from the present for you, consider cigarette smuggling in Canada.
By the end of the ’90s, heavy taxation had fuelled the creation of an illegal industry with an estimated value of $1.5 billion. The provincial government believed half of the cigarettes for sale in Ontario were illegal.
However, if you look at what I think is the very positive effect of creating land-use policies that restrict where smoking may take place, the outcome is altogether different. Land-use restrictions have made it safe for people who don’t want to be exposed to second-hand smoke and have led to smoking being viewed as socially unacceptable by an increasing proportion of the population.
These policies, coupled with negative advertising about smoking, seem to have reduced its prevalence and have worked wonders to eliminate the harm done to those of us who don’t want to be near the stuff.
Canada’s prostitution laws up in the air
But tobacco and alcohol are arguably the new kids on the block when compared to the age-old profession of prostitution.
In December, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the country’s anti-prostitution laws on the grounds the laws were too broad and “grossly disproportionate.”
The laws in question prohibit brothels, living on the avails of prostitution, and communicating in public with clients. In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that the laws compromised the health, safety, and the lives of prostitutes, especially in light of the fact selling sex for money is not a crime in this country.
The federal government has a year to come up with new legislation. How it chooses to respond remains to be seen, but, from a commercial real estate perspective, the whole affair raises interesting questions about land use and municipal zoning.
Before I go further, let me emphasize that prostitution is not a walk of life I would want to see anyone follow. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that trying to prohibit something rarely works. Instead, we need practical and pragmatic policies that serve to reduce risk and improve the safety and well-being of all involved. We have to live in a society where the rule of law applies, but concurrent with that, we have to have laws people are prepared to accept and live by.
An example from my own backyard
I live near the Hintonburg area of Ottawa. For years, drug dealing and rather bold street solicitation by prostitutes troubled this area of the city. It reached the point where I was reluctant to take a walk without my wife along to discourage unwanted advances.
But about five years ago, municipal efforts to clean up the area led to a marked decline in these activities. The area got a new lease on life as “Wellington West” and has enjoyed a rebirth, with new businesses opening and property values on the rise.
If the federal government does legalize the operation of brothels and the public solicitation of clients, neighbourhoods like Hintonburg demonstrate the need to regulate the industry in a way that is best for its practitioners as well as the community around them.
I certainly don’t want any kind of incompatible business operating next door to my house – current municipal zoning is there to prevent that and preserve the residential character, and property values, of my neighbourhood. Municipalities will have to, as they do now with any legal business activity, employ land-use policies that restrict business practices to specific areas, while at the same time ensuring public health and workplace safety are protected as much as possible.
Of course, no municipality can do this at the moment – local government can’t zone property for illegal uses. The federal government will have to address the legislative void that will exist before provincial governments can amend legislation to allow municipalities to act appropriately.
Finding a model that works
Once this type of business has been legalized, it can be regulated in a manner that generates tax revenue, works to ensure public and workplace health and safety, and reduces the cost to taxpayers for funding what can only be futile efforts to curb a habit that won’t go away. Government also can and should embark on public awareness campaigns about the health risks to discourage people from the activity, just as Health Canada does now with tobacco products.
I contend this is a more logical approach than continuing to waste a lot of taxpayers’ dollars on the current costly efforts by law enforcement and the court system. As a society, we owe it to ourselves to have policies that are effective and cost-effective, that work to enhance public and personal safety, and that protect neighbourhoods and property values.
Canada doesn’t have to look far for examples of a legalized system for prostitution and how municipalities have employed land use and zoning policies to regulate it. A broad range of solutions has been tried, with varying degrees of success. We owe it to ourselves to look at these examples and their outcomes while developing policies that don’t encourage, but at the same time are pragmatic and effective.
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