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October 6, 2007 - Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)

Column: What's Harper Smoking?

By Dan Gardner, The Ottawa Citizen

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Stephen Harper's announcement Thursday of a new national drug strategy served at least one valuable purpose: It conclusively demonstrated that the prime minister knows nothing about drugs or drug policy.

The list of misinformed, misleading or nonsensical statements uttered by Mr. Harper is long and this space short, so let me skip quickly to the highlights.

"If you are addicted to drugs, we'll help you," the prime minister declared, "and if you sell drugs, we'll punish you." This is an understandable sentiment. Dealers are victimizers. Addicts are victims. Punish one, help the other. It seems so obvious -- if you know nothing about illicit drugs.

The fact that drugs are illegal makes them expensive. To buy drugs, addicts on the street have to shell out as much as several hundred dollars each day. Property crime and prostitution are two ways to get that money. But there is a better option for people with an intimate knowledge of the local drug market: Sell drugs.

Thus, the typical street-level dealer is a street-level addict -- and Harper's neat division of the drug world into villainous dealers and victimized addicts is simply nonsense. If the government passes mandatory minimum sentences for dealing, it will wind up punishing the very addicts it says it wants to help. Imagine a man patting a dog with his left hand while slapping it with his right. That is the Conservative drug plan.

Then there's the use of the word "new" in the phrase "new National Anti-Drug Strategy." What precisely is "new" about it? The image of evil pushers and their hapless victims has been a recurring theme of moralizing politicians since the dawn of prohibition a century ago.

Even more familiar is Mr. Harper's juxtaposing of this image with a rejection of harm-reduction measures. In the 1950s, a growing heroin problem in Vancouver -- stop me if you've heard this one before -- prompted a national debate. On one side were doctors who called for a heroin-prescription program. On the other were police officers, who demanded harsher punishments for dealers and mandatory treatment for addicts.

As usual, the cops got their way. Severe sentences for importing and dealing became law in 1961, while people caught in possession of drugs could be given indefinite sentences in specialized treatment facilities. Did it work? At the time the law passed, illicit drugs were still a fringe phenomenon. Even marijuana was rarely seen outside beatnik circles. But then drug use exploded and the psychedelic '60s were born.

Dismayed by the failure of its drug policies, the government struck the LeDain commission to reconsider everything. After a huge amount of research, LeDain called for the decriminalization of marijuana and the creation of a heroin-prescription program. The police were furious. The government balked. And the LeDain report was dropped down the memory hole.

So what does Stephen Harper have to say about this? At the press conference, he complained about drug references in Beatles songs and the fact that drugs have been romanticized "since the 1960s." So naturally he wants to put in place the same policies that failed to stop Lucy from floating into the sky with diamonds -- a conclusion that seems perfectly reasonable, I assume, shortly after one drops acid.

Asked why he wouldn't back harm reduction policies such as supervised injection, Mr. Harper said he is "skeptical." This is encouraging. The essence of skepticism is not accepting something as true until convinced by evidence. That's how public policy should be made.

Now, the harm-reduction policies Mr. Harper questions are supported by a great many peer-reviewed scientific studies, but perhaps Mr. Harper simply has very high evidentiary standards. Again, that's laudable. But what I find harder to understand is that Mr. Harper embraces law enforcement even though the evidence supporting the effectiveness of enforcement is generously described as "slim to none."

So is Mr. Harper a skeptic? Or is he a closed-minded ideologue? I think the evidence is clear.

Invariably, Mr. Harper said, drug addiction must lead to tragedy. "If you remain a drug addict, I don't care how much harm you reduce, you're going to have a short and miserable life."

When William Wilberforce -- the man who defeated the slave trade in the British Parliament -- died in 1833, he was 74 years old. He was also an opium addict.

William Stewart Halsted -- a pioneering surgeon and medical researcher -- was just short of 70 when he died in 1922, despite being a lifelong addict. Halsted started with cocaine. Later, he switched to morphine -- a cousin of heroin -- and for the rest of his long and productive life he took daily injections of the drug.

Of course Halsted, Wilberforce and many others like them lived in a time when all drugs were legal and so they could easily obtain cheap and clean supplies. Not so today. As a result, addiction often leads to bankruptcy, squalor, disease and, as Mr. Harper said, "a short and miserable life."

So on this last point, Mr. Harper isn't entirely wrong, although I'm quite sure the connection between his policies and those short and miserable lives is lost on him. Righteous ignorance does fog the mind.

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