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April 4, 2006 - Calgary Herald (CN AB)

OpEd: Jail Not Answer In Drug Battle

By Philip W. Owen, former Vancouver mayor and drug policy reform activist

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The Safe Streets Safe Cities conference, which begins today and runs through Thursday, will tackle chronic social problems afflicting urban society and propose ways to make cities safe. International experts will examine modern scourges, including drugs, crime, prostitution, poverty and homelessness. See for details.

The "war on drugs" doesn't work. The facts from the United States show it's a disaster and countries cannot jail their way out of defeat.

In every major city across Canada and around the world, prohibition has proven to be a bust. The consensus globally is that drug policy reform is the only way to go.

We can't ignore drugs but we can and must manage drugs. The users are sick, many are teenagers, and Canada has a national health-care system to help them.

The drug dealers and pushers are evil and must go before the courts for stiff jail sentences. The system isn't working to change the reality that illegal drugs are a public health and public safety issue.

We need to put drugs into a regulated market environment. Governments control gambling, tobacco, alcohol, morphine and codeine. It's time they did the same thing with street drugs and introduced a program to regulate them.

When crack cocaine seriously surfaced in the mid-1990s, associated crime and suffering jumped. As mayor of Vancouver, I realized that the status quo wasn't on.

The people wanted change, but the federal government had no protocol and no programs that worked. We moved toward a reasoned solution, establishing a dialogue with more than 40 different groups and voices throughout the city.

We borrowed from other countries that had seen some success such as Germany and Switzerland, which provided treatment on demand.

As a result, Vancouver developed the Four Pillars Document, which focused on prevention, treatment, enforcement and harm-reduction.

Prevention includes early education in the schools. There are effective programs for students about smoking, drinking and sex education, but minimal ones on drugs. These kids are smart; they can be informed.

Treatment involves options and programs for those on drugs. All drug addicts go through phases when they can't stand it anymore.

Treatment on demand must be available. It works in Switzerland, where it is the law.

Harm reduction applies to both the community and the user. Safe injection sites, needle exchanges as well as many other harm-reduction programs have proven to be supportable and effective in Europe.

In Canada, the federal government authorized safe injection sites for Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal in 2003.

In Vancouver, the changes were huge: deaths due to overdoses dropped from 191 to 47 in less than two years.

It's crucial to separate the user from the dealer and get early contact and early intervention. That's far more successful -- and less complex -- than trying to rehabilitate a six-year user.

The potential to rehabilitate through innovative drug programs and treatments could ultimately lead to far less jail time with only the habitual criminal and dealer behind bars. The reality is that 80 per cent of crimes are caused by just five per cent of the criminal population.

Rehabilitation in jail should involve drug treatments and education programs. Put those convicted into workshops where they talk about their behaviour and avenues for change.

The goal is abstinence, but that's not completely realistic. We expect the courts to solve the drug problem. Judges, who are simply interpreting the la w, get criticized for lenient sentencing.

We can't just hope that drugs will go away and leave the whole activity to organized crime and unregulated dealers.

That's what we have now.

The global drug trade is a multibillion-dollar enterprise, especially benefiting terrorists and insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush said America wasn't going to allow drugs into the country. Yet the following year, $7.1 billion worth of heroin landed in the U.S. from Afghanistan.

Marijuana, which should be decriminalized, is a minor drug compared to the highly addictive hard drugs. Canadians want separate discussions about hard and soft drugs. (See the reports of both the House of Commons and the Senate from the fall of 2002.)

To seriously tackle hard drugs, every city in Canada, and indeed, North America, needs to adopt Vancouver's Four Pillars approach. The results are in; it works.

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