"Our values are under attack," Stephen Harper declared last week in Vancouver.
The enemies are drugs, he said, and a federal government that has been far too soft in battling the scourge on the streets.
"Some people want to deal with the problem by simply surrendering," Harper fumed, but a Conservative government would wage war.
To be precise, it appears from newspaper accounts that Harper didn't actually use the phrase "war on drugs." Too strong a whiff of Ronald Reagan about it, presumably. But his policies are exactly in line with those of the U.S. president who made the phrase famous, as well as the other president, Richard Nixon, who coined it.
There would be no more talk of reforming the marijuana laws, Harper promised, not even the Liberals' tepid plan for decriminalization.
Vancouver's safe-injection site would be closed because taxpayers' money should "not be used to fund drug use."
Presumably that would also mean the end of the study of the medical prescription of heroin.
There would be a new, under-fined "drug prevention strategy. Importantly, a Conservative government would "get tough" on dealers by introducing "mandatory minimum prison sentences of at least two years" if they import, export, traffic or produce heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine or large amounts of marijuana.
Why Harper chose to raise the profile of this issue, or why he framed it in the social-conservative language of "values," are mysteries I will leave to political pundits. Much more interesting to me is the substance of the platform, and the fact that Harper chose to announce it in Vancouver -- a city whose terrible drug problems have led to a national debate about shifting the focus of drug policies from law enforcement to public health.
All of this- - the policies, the setting, Harper's talk of defending social values- - is very, very old. It was old in the era of Ronald Reagan and Miami Vice and prime minister Brian Mulroney warning that a "drug epidemic" was upon us. It was old in the era of Richard Nixon and LSD and Pierre Trudeau promising to decriminalize pot.
It is so old, one would be hardpressed to find a living politician or policy-maker who has any idea who started it, or why.
In fact, it started in Vancouver.
It was the end of the 19th century and the presence of the yellow race was growing in the city.
Good citizens -- white citizens -- were worried. Not only were the newcomers of inferior stock, they worked cheap and took jobs from white men. And they had strange habits. They smoked opium, for one, rather than drinking beer and scotch as decent people do. It was even said they used opium to lure innocent white women into their filthy, yellow lairs.
In 1908, fears of the "yellow peril" -- stoked by Mackenzie King and Emily Murphy, two great Canadians with statues on Parliament Hill -- resulted in Canada being among the very first countries to introduce drug prohibition.
It didn't work. Opium could still be had in Vancouver with little effort.
The problem, politicians concluded, was that the laws weren't tough enough. A string of new laws followed, expanding the number of offences and imposing harsher punishments.
In 1922, a mandatory minimum prison sentence of six months was introduced for selling drugs to minors. In 1923, the same mandatory minimum was applied to anyone importing or exporting drugs.
The overwhelming majority of those convicted under the new laws were Chinese, a satisfying result in the eyes of legislators.
In 1938, the six-month mandatory minimum was applied to the crime of growing marijuana.
Drug offenders could also be ordered into hard labour. And for those cases in which months or years on a chain gang breaking rocks wasn't punishment enough, traffickers could be whipped.
But still the trade continued and dealers kept the streets supplied.
Then, as now, Vancouver was the centre of the drug scene. In 1951, a major panic about heroin in the city sparked a national debate about drug policies. One side wanted tougher laws.
"Light penalties and comparatively small fines had really very little deterrent effect," said one MP, repeating a complaint that has been heard every few years for almost a century.
This view was supported by the top U.S. drug official of the day, who gave influential testimony at a crucial Senate hearing.
There was a direct correlation between punishments and drug use, he said. If Canada had problems, it meant the punishments weren't tough enough.
Unfortunately, none of the senators thought to point out that that the United States had the toughest punishments and the worst rates of drug use.
The other side in the 1950s debate was led by doctors and public health officials. They wanted to change the paradigm and look at drugs as a health issue. In particular, they wanted to try a program Britain had used with great success for decades.
The "British system" permitted doctors to prescribe drugs to addicts unable to kick the habit.
British doctors had found that most addicts could easily be stabilized at regular dosages and live quite normal and unremarkable lives.
By satisfying addicts' demand for drugs, the British system had the further benefit of drying up the black market. And without a black market, far fewer new users started taking drugs in the first place -- a major reason the rate of addiction was so much lower in Britain than in Canada or the United States.
It was cops vs. doctors. The cops won. In 1954, a six-month mandatory minimum sentence was applied to simple possession of drugs. Whipping would also be available at judges' discretion.
And in 1961, new legislation added a mandatory minimum prison sentence of seven years for importing or exporting drugs in any quantity. Maximum sentences for other offences were raised to life in prison.
It should have been a death blow to drugs, but a curious thing happened. Drug use didn't go down; it started to climb. And it kept on climbing. Arrests and imprisonment soared but still drug use multiplied. And the black market expanded to satisfy demand so efficiently that drug prices started to fall.
A decade after the new law came into force, the nation had been transformed. There was vastly more drug use and drugs could be found in cities and towns where they had never been. The police were powerless.
The lesson was obvious: Punishment cannot control drugs.
Time passes and people forget, of course, particularly when forgetting is politically convenient.
But if Stephen Harper wants to do more than buy votes with fairy tales -- if he is serious about crafting drug policies that keep people alive and communities safe -- he might want to read a little history.
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.