Canada's worst kept secret was revealed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Winnipeg on Thursday, and not surprisingly, the National Anti-Drug Strategy offers few surprises.
As the Conservatives had previously announced, in the federal government's annual budget, there would be an additional $64 million to fight illicit drug use, the only question concerned how that money would be spent. To no one's surprise, the Conservatives divided the money between prevention and treatment on the one hand, and law enforcement on the other.
In fact, despite all the rhetoric surrounding the strategy, it can really be described as more of the same -- the same failed, enforcement-heavy approach toward illicit drugs that the Liberals took when they were in power.
Enforcement Is the Priority
Of the $64 million, $22 million will be directed toward enforcement, $10 million toward prevention programs and $32 million will be earmarked for treatment. The extra money for treatment and prevention are welcome, but it's clear that enforcement will continue to get the lion's share of funds, just as it did under the Liberals.
That's because the $64 million is only a small addition to the money already invested in the drug war. For example, in the 2004-2005 fiscal year, Canada devoted $271 million toward enforcement, compared with $51 million for treatment and $10 million for prevention.
The additional funds will therefore do little to tilt the emphasis away from the failed war-on-drugs approach. And while the Conservatives have painted the Liberals as having been soft on drug crime, it's clear that they were anything but. As just one example, the City of Vancouver noted that between 1992 and 2002, the marijuana offence rate rose nearly 80 per cent, due mainly to an increase in possession offences.
But while the Liberals were enthusiastic foot soldiers in the war on drugs, the Conservatives clearly want to lead the charge. Making good on a previous promise, Harper said the Conservatives will introduce legislation with mandatory sentences for those convicted of trafficking in drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine.
After the 1996 cocaine-related death of basketball star Len Bias, the United States introduced mandatory sentences, which have proved disastrous. In addition to failing to reduce drug use, the sentences have swelled the prison population, and non-violent drug offenders now comprise 25 per cent of the American prison population. As a result, many U.S. jurisdictions have now begun dismantling mandatory sentencing regimes.
But not content to learn from U.S. failures, the Conservatives forge ahead. Their entire strategy is based on the myth that there is a sharp distinction between drug dealers and drug users. Yet many addicts become (low-level) dealers because it provides them with a steady source of income and a steady supply of drugs. The most severely addicted are the ones most likely to take up dealing.
It is these people who are most likely to be subject to mandatory sentences since high level dealers are good at insulating themselves from the police. Also, when large-scale traffickers are caught, they are often able to provide valuable information to prosecutors in exchange for lighter sentences.
That the Conservatives are interested in ramping up the war on drugs is also evident in that the $64 million includes not a cent for proven, life-saving harm reduction programs. The feds did grant another six-month extension to Vancouver's supervised injection site, Insite, this week, but that was likely a political move to avoid controversy in advance of the announcement of the drug strategy.
Little Aid for Addicts
The failure to include harm reduction will also likely work against any efforts to treat drug addicts. After all, the most seriously addicted people tend to be highly marginalized and do not seek treatment. But initiatives like the supervised injection facility are proven to act as a point of first contact where marginalized users are introduced to the system in a non-threatening way. As a consequence, many eventually seek treatment.
In introducing the new strategy, Harper said, "Breaking Canada's drug habit will require a huge effort. But as of today our country is on the road to recovery."
In reality, though, we're on the same road that we've been on for decades. We're merely going a little faster, which is unfortunate since it's a dead end.
October 5, 2007 - Victoria Times-Colonist (CN BC)
Column: Why A War On Drugs Just Won't Work
Basing Policy On Belief, Not Facts, Dooms Strategy To Failure From The Start
By Jody Paterson, Times Colonist
The problems of ideology-based governance clearly must be more obvious from afar. Otherwise, Canadians wouldn't be able to bear the hypocrisy of railing against oppressive and backward regimes elsewhere in the world while committing ourselves anew to the folly of a war on drugs.
With news this week that we're returning full-force to the same fruitless battle we've already lost several times over, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has once again reminded me why word of his 2006 election plunged me into a pit of despair.
Here we are one more time, at least 60 years after we first heard from the experts that we were doing things all wrong, talking about "crackdowns" and the need to "get tough" with those who use illicit drugs. Posturing about all the butt-kicking we'll be doing at the border once our new anti-drug strategy is in place. Planning the latest version of an earnest but pointless campaign to convince teenagers not to use drugs.
Small wonder I eventually lost my appetite for journalism when I think how many times I've witnessed this particular story cycle unfold. The real tragedy is that the misuse of drugs continues to cost us $40 billion a year in Canada in direct and indirect costs, and that's not even counting all the billions we've thrown away on misguided and ideologically driven attempts to do something about that.
Here's the thing: Health issues can't be resolved through ideology.
For the most part, we understand that. You wouldn't catch us scrapping radiation therapy as a treatment for cancer, for instance, based solely on some politician's belief that the only cure is to eat lots of vegetables. Were we to elect Jehovah's Witnesses to office, I can't see us banning blood transfusions.
So why do we continue to let our elected politicians ignore the science when it comes to drug issues? Why should anybody's poorly informed position around drug use be the lens that we apply when trying to address complex health and social problems that are far too important to be left to political whim?
I respect the right of Stephen Harper and his MPs to believe that using illicit drugs is bad. It's a free country and they're welcome to their opinions, and never mind that alcohol is actually Canada's most dangerous and readily available drug by a long shot. (The social costs of alcohol use in Canada are more than double that of all illicit drugs combined and health-related costs are three times higher.)
But why would we want to base something as important as our national drug strategy on opinion and belief?
We've got six decades worth of scientific studies underlining the importance of an informed, health-based approach in reducing the harm and societal costs of drug use. Yet we're still letting vital public policy be decided by people who would rather maintain their personal fictions than take steps to fix the problems.
"This is a failed approach," University of B.C. researcher Thomas Kerr commented to the media this week about the Harper government's intention to launch yet another anti-drug strategy rooted almost entirely in enforcement. "The experiment is done. The science is in."
We've researched drug-use issues from every possible angle over the years, and have established an astonishing amount of consensus at the scientific level in terms of how Canada can best manage problems related to drug and alcohol use. We verified a long, long time ago that concentrating our efforts on enforcement is not only futile as a way of reducing much of the problem, but also alarmingly costly.
But our current federal drug strategy devotes almost three-quarters of its annual $245-million budget to enforcement. The updated strategy being touted by the Harper government offers more of the same -- and less of what's actually working. Highly successful harm-reduction strategies like Vancouver's safer-injection site are rumoured to be on the chopping block.
What is it that we're trying to change? If it's the flow of drugs into our country, then we need to tackle the issues of demand. We can knock ourselves out trying to stop drugs at the border, but they're going to find their way in no matter what as long as there are Canadians to buy them.
If it's the health risks we're worried about, then we need to be providing honest information to everyone who might use drugs, particularly pre-teens heading into the inevitable experimental years.
The key word is "honest," which implies being truthful about which drugs are truly the scary ones.
Our old friend alcohol certainly wouldn't fare well in that truth-telling. The annual health costs from alcohol consumption in Canada are almost 45 times that of marijuana, and alcohol is far and away the most dangerous drug of all to use during pregnancy.
If it's drug addiction that we want to have an impact on, that entails dramatic, system-wide change, because we're doing almost nothing right on that front at the moment. Addiction is a health issue, plain and simple. We'll get somewhere when we start treating it like one.
So with all due respect, Mr. Harper, believe whatever you like in your personal life. But as prime minister, please run this country on facts and not fiction.
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