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January 10, 2006 - Nelson Daily News (CN BC)

Column: To Solve The Gun Problem, Overhaul Our Drug Policy

By Paul Willcocks

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Politicians can get as tough as they want on guns, but if that's the primary approach by our leaders then the killings are going to continue

The Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats are falling all over themselves to get tough on gun crime. And both parties are missing the real problem.

To deal with guns, you have to deal with gangs. And to deal with gangs, you need to make the drug trade less profitable. Nothing that has been proposed by the parties will do that.

Despite the Boxing Day killing in Toronto and several gang shootings in Vancouver, the rate of gun deaths has steadily declined over the last 20 years. When the final numbers are in, forest industry accidents in B.C.will likely have claimed more people than gun violence in 2005.

But the concern is legitimate. Gun deaths are down across Canada, but in centres like Toronto and Vancouver they are rising. There were likely about 100 murders in B.C. this year - the numbers are still being tallied - with three-quarters in the Lower Mainland. Vancouver police report they are dealing with about six per cent more gun incidents each year.

Without effective action, the problem will spill into Victoria and Kelowna and Prince George.

Guns aren't a problem across the urban centres. In Vancouver, young IndoCanadian men have been doing much of the shooting, and dying. In Toronto, it is young black men. The common link is an involvement in gangs. That's who has the guns, police say, gang members and wannabes.

The Conservatives propose longer mandatory minimum sentences, an end to early parole release and more police. The increased policing, if targeted, will help. The other measures are costly and largely ineffective.

That didn't stop the Liberals from joining the 'get-tough' bandwagon this week. (We're no soft Pollyannas, Justice Minister Irwin Cotler proclaimed this week as the party flip-flopped on mandatory minimum sentences.) This kind of talk may be good politics, but it's lousy policy.

The people who drive into a neighbourhood and spray a house with bullets already risk serious jail time. They are not given to assessing consequences, so longer prison terms aren't going to make much difference.

The priority in tackling the gun problem should be eliminating gangs, or at least reducing their power and allure.

And without the big profits from drugs, the gangs could not exist.

Young men may still hang around together, and do crime. But without the drug money, they would be a nuisance, not a threat. (The deadly Boxing Day gunfight in Toronto was reportedly over drug turf.)

Prohibition in the U.S. created Al Capone and his rivals, who turned streets into war zones over the big profits. We're creating the same kind of problem with our drug policies.

People who need and want an illegal drug - alcohol, heroin, marijuana - - will get it. Criminals will take advantage of the opportunity to supply the market; the more difficult it becomes, the higher the prices and the more profitable the business.

The theory that aggressive enforcement can drive suppliers from the market has been proven wrong. Drug enforcement efforts have cost Canadians more than $2 billion over the last five years. And illegal drugs are easier to get, stronger and cheaper than ever. Attacking the supply has failed over decades, in many countries.

Instead governments should be tackling the demand side. Effective education to reduce the number of young people starting drugs. A massive investment in detox and treatment and support so people can quit, and stay off.

And legalization in various forms to end the hunt for drugs and money that consumes many addicts, and rob the gangs of their profits. Provide controlled heroin supplies and addicts can stabilize their lives, while gangs lose billions in profits that fund their enterprise. Allow possession of a dozen marijuana plants, and gang-run grow ops lose their domestic market.

The drug trade drives this problem. It's the reason gangs can form and thrive, and they're responsible for the rise in gun crime. After years of failure, surely it's time for politicians to start talking about an approach that could actually work.

Footnote: Switzerland conducted a widely reported experiment in which 1,100 addicts received free heroin. During the test there was a massive reduction in criminal activity by the drug users and an increase in employment -- and not one overdose death. More than 80 people quit drugs while using free legal heroin.

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