The B.C. Health Officers' Council this week reiterated its stance that a health-based approach to addiction and drug policy is required, not a criminal strategy.
"Imitating the U.S. approach by escalating the war on drugs as the federal government is doing will not reduce drug-related crime or drug use," said an insistent Dr. Richard Mathias, speaking for the council.
"We only have to look south to the United States to see how policies [such as] mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes and coercive addiction treatment have failed."
In conjunction with a two-day, UN-sponsored drug conference in Vancouver, the council released a new report that underscores why the federal Conservative plan is wrong-headed.
The brief was unequivocal: Harm-reduction programs rather than stiffer criminal penalties are the way to go.
Research by the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse, cited by the health officers, indicates current policies and programs for psychoactive substances cost the economy some $40 billion annually. It adds such drugs are linked every year to nearly 50,000 deaths.
What we're doing isn't working.
The health officers' council and many others at Beyond 2008, held at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, say the strategy of putting more and more money into the same old police and penitentiary pockets is an expensive failure.
It has neither reduced the supply of illicit substances that swamp our streets, nor made our neighbourhoods safer.
"The current punitive approaches to illegal drugs are not effective, waste valuable public resources and increase rather than reduce harms," said Mathias, a medical professor at UBC.
"It is time to apply our energies to new and innovative approaches that are supported by scientific evidence rather than continuing to pour tax dollars into the same ineffective and harmful programs and expecting different results."
He and others can repeat that over and over again, but I believe his voice and those singing harmony with him are being ignored.
This paper is only the latest call for lawmakers to eschew the stern paternalism of the last century and regulate psychoactive substances from the perspective of improving and protecting public health.
Since the Le Dain Commission of the 1970s, a broad chorus of individuals, organizations, leading academics, policy makers, community groups and government studies has concluded it's time to change our approach to drug control.
Yet Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative administration continues singing from the same hymnbook as U.S. Republicans -- spare the rod, spoil the drug offender.
It's a discredited approach.
"The federal government's mandatory-minimum proposals will increase incarceration rates of people with low-level involvement in drugs, with no evidence that these harsh measures will actually affect the drug trade," according to Neil Boyd, Associate Director of Simon Fraser University's School of Criminology.
"These policies will stress already overcrowded jails and put newly incarcerated people at increased risk of many social and health problems such as HIV and hepatitis, which are seen at high rates in jails."
In federal prisons the incidence of HIV is seven to 10 times higher and Hepatitis C is 30 times higher than in the general population.
Even with their security measures, penitentiaries, too, are awash with drugs.
Like the health officers' council and others, Boyd has long advocated for drug-law reform.
Still, in spite of the progressive recommendations from this conference and others that will flow to the UN for discussion later this summer, change is unlikely.
Those in power in Washington, D.C. and Ottawa appear deaf to this message.
It doesn't matter how much research, how much data, or how many eminent minds point to the dire need for a change in direction.
Politicians keep plodding down the same old policy path when it comes to drugs -- more policing, more prisons, more punishment.
The result is predictable -- more wasted money, more wasted lives.
If they would only listen to the mounting refrain, as the health officers' council says, we'd save money, we'd save lives.
February 6, 2008 - The Province, The (CN BC)
Forum: We Can't Win Drug War With Just Police
Delegates Work To Revise UN Drug Policy
By Suzanne Fournier
A United Nations forum on drug policy yesterday agreed that "over-reliance on law enforcement" causes deaths, fuels crime and unfairly targets "poor people of colour."
Former Vancouver mayor Philip Owen said after the Beyond 2008 conference in Vancouver that "drug-policy reform won the day because most rational people on the front lines realize that the war on drugs has been a miserable failure."
The conference drew about 80 delegates from all over North America and is one of several being held worldwide before a drug-policy discussion slated for Vienna this July.
Owen, the architect of Vancouver's four-pillar drug strategy based on prevention, treatment, harm reduction and enforcement, noted that the "old-school prohibition crowd also had its say."
"There are still those, in the U.S. and in our federal government, who say drug users are criminals and should get a job, pay taxes and salute the flag," he said.
He insisted that community attitudes are dramatically shifting.
He noted that 220 U.S. mayors at a conference last June "agreed unanimously the war on drugs is not working."
"Mayors are close to the issue so they actually see the drug users as people who are ill and need treatment, and they have to deal with related crime, yet it's our federal government that controls narcotics," Owen said.
He blasted Ottawa for "spending $64 million spread over two years for every province in Canada for prevention, treatment and enforcement of drug policy -- which is just insulting. It's just pennies."
He noted there are 45,000 deaths each year in Canada linked to alcohol and tobacco, which are legal.
"How many die of marijuana? None," he said. "If government regulated and taxed marijuana and other drugs, then we'd at least get money for health and social programs, including drug treatment, detox and prevention."
Forum organizers noted that "over-reliance on law enforcement" criminalizes drug users unnecessarily, "fuels the drug economy and the black market, aids organized crime and terrorists [dependent on income from drug crops] and disproportionately targets poor people of colour."
Forum co-sponsor Gillian Maxwell of Keeping the Door Open: Dialogues on Drug Use, said most conference delegates who visited Insite, Vancouver's safe-injection site, "were very positive."
Chris Livingstone of the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society agreed with forum findings that "First Nations people suffer disproportionate harm."
"All of the punishment and prohibition policies lead
to criminalization and deaths -- we can't get any funding to
continue our alley patrols where we saved people from overdose
February 6, 2008 - The Province (CN BC)
Forum: Drug Conference High On Harm Reduction
Pastor Wonders Why She Was Excluded From UN Forum
By Joey Thompson
For a region thick with addicts and thin on rehab beds, it's logical to assume a global forum on solving the world's drug woes would want to encourage talks on various recovery initiatives.
At least Gloria Kieler, a faith-based, go-clean worker in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside for the past 16 years, thought so.
The East Hastings storefront pastor expected treatment and rehabilitation to be the operative buzz-words when delegates from 70 non-governmental groups (NGOs) gathered this week for the UN-stamped forum in Vancouver that's supposedly rooting for a drug-free world.
Not only were rehab and recovery missing from the agenda, she was too, as was Urban Core, a committee of 40 DTES groups who work in the trenches daily to help drug addicts and needles users get clean.
In fact, few who have publicly criticized harm-reduction programs that ignore the need for treatment options were told of the international event, much less invited to discuss why they believe governments should adequately fund detox, stabilization and treatment facilities before investing in harm-reduction schemes -- needle exchanges, crack pipe give-aways, injection sites, that sort of thing.
Yet forum organizers from the University of Victoria's Centre for Addictions Research didn't fail to add the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users to their guest list as well as harm-reduction cheerleaders Philip Owen and Larry Campbell.
It's just a coincidence that the centre is also a known harm-reduction advocate, isn't it? And that its website is long on reducing the harms associated with drug use but short on measures aimed at ending it?
And that its freshest research initiative claims Victoria -- which has almost no recovery beds -- has an urgent need for a shooting gallery, er, supervised-consumption site.
While sister conferences unfolding in other North American cities appear open-minded, research centre folks boast of being the only ones to invite supporters of harm-reduction and drug-policy reform.
All the more reason to ensure proponents of rehabilitation first, harm-reduction second, are among them to generate open, frank discussion.
"If VANDU can suddenly speak for harm reduction internationally, why can't people like myself and the Urban Core speak on treatment recovery internationally?" Kieler e-mailed centre director Dan Reist.
Local matters, or the need for services, is not what this forum is about, he replied. It's simply to gather ideas and collect information related to international policy.
"The focus is on how NGOs can better engage with governments and UN agencies."
Fair enough, but the two-day talk-fest's specified goal -- mapped out as a United Nations review of how to improve international drug-control efforts -- was to solve the world's drug problems, not solve the health issues related to them.
The Vancouver forum looks more like a rah-rah session for harm-reduction buffs, and less like a world-class symposium aimed at reviewing the UN's 1998 commitment to work towards a "drug-free world."
My prediction: Drug abuse in the Downtown Eastside will continue to thrive, perhaps even grow, as long as the harm-reduction folk who tout maintenance, rather than abstinence, control B.C.'s billion-dollar addiction services industry.
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.