Death by Delay

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Death by Delay

How many people have to die before the feds realize the prohibition is murder?

In September of 1994, BC Chief Coroner Vince Cain published a report commissioned after heroin overdose deaths in BC mushroomed to 331 in 1993, making drug overdose the leading cause of death for British Columbians between the ages of 30 and 44. Cain made 63 specific recommendations.

In response to the rising HIV infection rate within the Vancouver injection drug using community, Cain recommended safe houses, more funding for needle exchange programs, and he advised the BC Ministry of the Attorney General to “enter into discussions with the federal Ministers of Justice and Health on the … feasibility of decriminalizing the possession and use of substances by people shown to be addicted to those specific substances.”

Cain also advised the Attorney General to, “seriously inquire into the merits of legalizing the possession of some the the so-called `soft’ drugs, such as marijuana.”. Even though decriminalization is ostensibly NDP party policy, the report was shelved and ignored and only one of the 63 recommendations has been implemented.

Now, three years later, the Vancouver-Richmond Health Board has declared the Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside a medical emergency because of the growing HIV infection rate among injection drug users.

We had an epidemic that was smoldering along until 1994 when injection drug users switched to injecting cocaine as the drug of choice,” said Dr Martin Schecter of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. Nearly half of the 6,000 to 10,000 addicts in the downtown east side are believed to be infected with HIV. The incident rate is believed to be the highest in the developed world ? higher than Bangkok and New York.

Passing the buck

British Columbia’s current chief coroner accuses Ottawa of passing the buck. In an interview with the Vancouver Sun, Coroner Larry Campbell said, “I find the federal health minister saying it’s a legal problem and the justice minister saying it’s a health problem.” Neither Health Minister (and formerly Justice Minister) Allan Rock nor current Justice Minister Anne McLellan would discuss the issue, both saying the epidemic is the responsibility of the other.

“Three hundred people died in British Columbia last year from heroin overdoses and I have no idea of the number of people who died as a result of sharing needles ? HIV infections,” Campbell said, noting that that the cost of treating an HIV-infected person is about $150,000 per year.

Decriminalization debate

BC Attorney-General Ujjal Dosanjh is also blaming the feds and is finally giving the Cain recommendations some consideration. “Drug addicts need to be treated with more compassion, and decriminalizing the possession of illegal drugs for personal use might be one way of doing that,” said Dosanjh. Dosanjh said he will place the issue of decriminalization before his counterparts in other provinces later this year if BC police chiefs and mayors agree that it’s time to encourage debate.

Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen and Police Chief Bruce Chambers said they are ready to look at decriminalization and any other measure that might ease social and health problems on the Downtown Eastside. “Obviously, we have a problem, and we have to consider all possible solutions,” Owen said. Former Premier Mike Harcourt has called for the decriminalization of heroin and cocaine and the deputy chief of the Vancouver police, Ken Higgins, has said decriminalizing possession of drugs like heroin or cocaine is a “necessary part of the battle.”

Better late than never

The Vancouver-Richmond health board has approved a plan to spend $3.7 million to help curb the HIV epidemic. The Ministry of Health is to kick in $3 million and the health board $700,000. The board unanimously endorsed a report calling for hiring 42 more workers to ease the crisis and for five needle exchange sites. Health board staff have been asked to produce a report by December on the issue of harm reduction, including everything from the decriminalization of drugs to making cocaine and heroin available to addicts at special clinics.

Joy Cops Detrimental to Public

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police does not support decriminalization. “Basically, the CACP sees drugs as a very serious criminal problem in the community and they feel that any relaxation of those laws would be detrimental to the public,” said Ottawa police chief Brian Ford, chair of the CACP and head of its law amendment committee.

BC Minister of Health Joy McPhail has ruled out “shooting galleries”. “Let’s be clear on this: These are shooting galleries where people who are unhealthy, sick and addicted use illegal substances,” MacPhail said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me whatsoever for health-care dollars being put into shooting galleries.” However, a shooting gallery or needle exchange centre can be operated for a year for the cost of treating a single HIV infected drug user.

Contact information:

* Joy MacPhail, Minister of Health and Minister Responsible for Seniors: Room 306, Parliament Buildings, Victoria, BC, V8V 1X4; tel (604) 387-5394; fax (604) 387-3696; email [email protected].

* Ujjal Dosanjh, Attorney General of British Columbia: Parliament Buildings, Victoria, BC, V8V 1X4; tel (604) 387-1866; fax: (604) 387-6411

* BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, 608-1081 Burrard St, Vancouver, BC, V6Z 1Y6; tel (604) 631-5477

By Matthew Elrod finis