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April 14, 2007 - Brooks Bulletin (CN AB)

Canadian, American Cops Say It's Time To End Drug Prohibition, Save Lives

From Canadian Press

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VANCOUVER - It's a familiar scene on TV newscasts: wads of cash, rows of guns and bags full of drugs displayed neatly on a table by police officers seemingly posing by their latest set of trophies.

One more drug bust, another haul, and big-time traffickers facing the prospect of hefty jail time.

But some former law enforcement officials in Canada and the United States who have spent years fighting the ongoing war on drugs say it's a losing battle.

Their views about how prohibition has failed to make a dent in the drug supply while millions of dollars continue to be wasted on criminalizing recreational drug users are told in the National Film Board documentary Damage Done: The Drug War Odyssey.

It premiers in Victoria on Saturday, followed by a showing in Vancouver on Sunday before airing on TV on April 28.

Most of the police officers featured in the film are part of a growing U.S.-based organization called LEAP - Law Enforcement Against Prohibition -- which also includes corrections officers, retired and sitting judges and prosecutors.

Mike Smithson, a spokesman for LEAP, said from Medford, Mass., that about 330 of the organization's 7,000 international members are Canadians.

They include Senator Larry Campbell, a former RCMP drug squad officer and Vancouver mayor who ran on a platform of reducing harm from drug use.

Campbell, whose views are featured in the film, said in an interview that drug laws need to be reformed so addiction is treated as a health issue that's exacerbated by other problems including poverty, homelessness and mental illness.

He said his law-and-order stance about criminalizing junkies as a Mountie changed radically when he became Vancouver's chief coroner in 1996 and saw the devastating effects of drug overdoses in the city's seedy Downtown Eastside.

"My philosophy had to shift because I went from enforcing the law to trying to save people's lives," said Campbell, who will speak at the Vancouver premiere of the film on Sunday.

"When I really took a hard look at it, I realized that what we were doing was not saving lives. In fact, we were seeing the deaths increase."

Campbell is a proponent of Vancouver's safe-injection site, which provides a harm-reduction approach to treating people who may otherwise overdose or pass on blood-borne diseases like HIV from shared needles.

At Insite, the only such facility in North America, addicts shoot up heroin in the presence of a nurse and are offered referrals for treatment.

Campbell noted that various studies published in top international journals such as the Lancet, the British Medical Journal and the New England Journal of Medicine have hailed the positive effects of Insite, including reduced property crime by people desperate for a fix.

The facility is operating as a pilot project until the end of the year, when the Conservative government is expected to decide its fate.

"I will say this, I will not let it be shut down," Campbell said, adding the site saves taxpayers $250,000 a year for every addict who doesn't contract HIV.

Like other members of LEAP, Campbell favours legalization of drugs so they can be controlled and regulated.

He said such a policy change wouldn't create a nation of addicts just like the end of alcohol prohibition in the United States and Canada in the 1930s didn't turn more people into drunks.

"My position is we legalize marijuana and we tax the living hell out of it and we put all of the money we get from it back into health care," Campbell said of British Columbia's $8-billion-a-year industry.

Const. John Gayder of the Niagara Parks Police in Niagara Falls, Ont., is a founding member of LEAP.

He says in the film that he gives drug calls a low priority because arresting such people isn't helping them.

Ending the prohibition on drugs would do away with gangs fighting over turf and distribution of drugs and the related shootings and beatings that go along with the trade, he said.

Jerry Paradis, who retired as a B.C. provincial court judge four years ago, is also a LEAP member and after 35 years on the bench, he echoes Gayder's sentiments .

Starting in the mid-1980s, Paradis said he was bothered by the notion that petty criminals arrested for offences such as shoplifting to buy drugs, would return repeatedly to the prisoners' box in front of him instead of getting the help they needed for their addiction.

"I had no choice but to deal with them as if they were criminals rather than people with a serious health problem," he said.

Drugs have spawned a massive industry, not just for law enforcement, but for lawyers and the entire court system.

"I fully accept that the RCMP has seriously invested, in its history, the idea of drug prohibition and will not let go of that very easily.

"I'm satisfied that for them it's a very serious industry just like in the United States for prison builders," he said of the high number of people in that country jailed for even simple drug possession.

But Paradis said there's a growing debate, especially in Canada over the last three years or so, that favours legalizing drugs to remove traffickers' profit and end the cycle of violent crime and prostitution.

At the same time, there's more awareness that addicts need treatment, not jail time, he said.

"I can say that there are a number of judges I've spoken to who agree entirely that this madness should be stopped, it should end."

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