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December 13, 2006 - Victoria Times-Colonist (CN BC)

Editorial: U.S. Shows Us What Not To Do

America's Hardline Approach to Battling Drug Abuse Has Been a Costly Disaster

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

It's painful to watch the federal government stumble toward a disastrously wrong path in its search for a solution to the real problem of drug abuse.

Two separate reports this week suggest the Harper government is at risk of ignoring science, common sense and experience in developing its promised national drug strategy.

Internal documents reveal that Ottawa has been consulting with U.S. government officials on its new drug plan, with "various senior-level meetings between U.S. officials and ministers/ministers' offices."

Certainly, we share a border with the U.S. and it's important to brief American officials on Canada's efforts to deal with the drug trade.

But developing a common approach with the U.S. is wrongheaded. The American enforcement-based war on drugs has been, by any measure, a costly disaster. Twenty years ago there were about 80,000 drug offenders in U.S. prisons; today there are 400,000. Federal spending on anti-drug efforts have climbed from $1.5 billion in 1985 to more than $20 billion.

And all that effort and money have brought nothing but failure. Addiction, deaths and crime have increased. Drugs are cheaper and more readily available. The damage, to individuals, families and communities, has mounted.

Despite that, the U.S. government has publicly pressured Canada to follow its failed approach.

Worryingly, the Harper government has echoed the U.S. rhetoric, stressing enforcement and talking about the need for mandatory minimum sentences, more enforcement and more jails. More of the same old failed tactics.

At the same time, Ottawa has been cool to the principle of harm reduction -- the idea that efforts to help addicts manage their addictions can improve their lives and increase public safety.

The government, for example, rejected the findings from more than a dozen serious, peer-reviewed research projects and refused to issue a new licence for Vancouver's safe-injection site. The research showed the site had resulted in more people seeking addiction treatment and reduced overdose deaths, public drug use and the spread of disease.

But the federal government offered only temporary operating approval for the site, saying more research was needed. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he would give particular weight to the RCMP's views on the pilot project.

This week those views were revealed. A three-page report from the force's Pacific region drug and organized crime awareness program attacked the safe-injection site.

There was no research, no facts, statistics or analysis. Just one officer's impression that things didn't look any better in the area and the suggestion that the risks of overdose death and HIV infection are valuable deterrents to drug use.

If this is the information the government prefers to real research, we are in serious trouble.

There are no easy answers. Enforcement is necessary. So is education, something that continues to be sorely lacking.

Treatment has to be available for those who want to quit, something that is not now true. Drug addiction has to be seen as a health and social issue, not a crime.

And harm-reduction measures, such as the Vancouver injection site and one proposed for Victoria, should be part of any effective solution.

Drugs are devastating too many Canadian lives and too many communities. We can't afford to waste time and vast amounts of money pursuing a strategy that has already proven to be a failure.

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