As long as the U.S-style "war on drugs" continues, criminals will control what drugs are sold, how much they cost, how deadly those drugs are, and how young their customers will be.
That was the message delivered yesterday by Jack Cole, a retired New Jersey police officer who spent 26 years making arrests in connection with "billions of dollars in cocaine and heroin" as well as other drugs.
"The war on drugs in the U.S. has been a dismal failure," said Cole, the founder of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).
He was speaking at Beyond 2008, a United Nations global forum at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University's downtown campus.
Cole said delegates should urge Prime Minister Stephen Harper not to make the mistake of following the hardline U.S. drug "prohibition and punishment" stance.
The U.S. war on drugs has cost on average $69 billion a year for the past 35 years and led to 37 million arrests for nonviolent drug offences, said Cole.
"Despite all the lives we have destroyed and all the money so ill-spent, today illicit drugs are cheaper, more potent and easier to get than they were 35 years ago and more people are dying in the streets at the hands of drug barons," said Cole, who claims LEAP has 10,000 members, including cops, judges and probation and parole officers.
"Right now, criminals are telling us what drugs are going to be supplied, how those drugs will be cut, what they will cost and who's going to be selling to 10-year-olds," said Cole.
"We need to treat drug addiction as a health problem," said Cole, adding that LEAP hopes to "at least get the legalization and regulation of drugs on the agenda."
The two-day forum, one of several around in the world leading to a July conference in Vienna, has more than 100 delegates with widely differing viewpoints, from DARE B.C. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) to Drug-Free America, from Virginians Against Drug Violence to the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU).
Early this morning, delegates will tour Insite, Vancouver's safe-injection facility that is a first in North America. The Canadian government has given Insite a six-month reprieve from drug enforcement, until this June, but is not committed to permanent operation of the clinic, which opened in 2003 with B.C. government funding.
VANDU spokesman Dean Wilson, who said yesterday was his 52nd birthday and the 40th anniversary of his first hit of heroin, is at the conference to advocate for drug users.
"There's everyone here from drug warriors to anti-drug warriors, but I can pit my my wits against any of them because I've actually walked the walk," said Wilson, who explained he's used methadone instead of heroin for nine months.
"Why do they feel they have the moral high ground? All they've done is make bad people rich."
Cole was heckled outside the conference by Dr. Kevin Sabet, a former Republican speechwriter who is now with Florida's Project Sundial (Supporting United Nations Drug Initiatives and Legislation).
Sabet criticized the Vancouver forum for being made up "80 per cent" by "people who all agree with each other."
"Go to African-American communities in the U.S. inner cities and bring up legalization and watch their reaction," said Sabet.
Sgt. Scott Rintoul of the RCMP's drug-awareness section, slammed LEAP and its pro-legalization stance.
"Canada has no war on drugs, because a war should have a general in charge of an army," said Rintoul.
"We need strong leadership, a sound prevention and treatment strategy, law enforcement, a justice system and strong community attitudes against drugs, and we're lacking on many of those fronts.
"But for these guys to come in and talk about legalization of drugs is to just give up. It's like they want us to throw our hands up and say, 'We've lost the war, let's legalize drugs,' " said Rintoul.
"Half of the RCMP's enforcement budget is spent on alcohol-related crime, and alcohol is legal and regulated," he said.
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