Canada: From Bad to Worse on Drug Policy?

A major player in the push for reform to our drug laws worries that we are farther away from change than ever now that the Conservatives are in power. “My fear is that we’re going to fall more and more into the pocket of the American war-on-drugs approach,” says Eugene Oscapella of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy.
“We’re doing a bad enough job on our own but we don’t need to go ahead and make it worse by getting more deeply involved in that punitive criminal justice approach, which doesn’t work.”

In recent years, there has been a growing recognition by politicians that the prohibitionist approach to drug use doesn’t work, says Oscapella. In 2002, a Senate committee recommended that pot be legalized, he pointed out. The same year, the federal auditor general slammed Ottawa for wasting $500 million a year on its failed war on drugs.

Of those funds, 95% is spent on enforcement, notes Oscapella. “If the system worked, there might be some argument for using it, but it is a colossal failure. It doesn’t stop people from using drugs,” he says.

“It makes the drug use that does occur more dangerous than it would otherwise be. We end up having the police instead of public health officials doing drug education.”

This week, Oscapella is with hundreds of like-minded people from around the world at an international conference on the reduction of drug-related harm in Vancouver.

The presenters at the conference will largely be preaching to the converted since they’ve been on the front lines for years, fighting the scourge of drug addiction.

They all know the prohibitionist model has been a disaster. They see the consequences every day: the prisons filled with infected addicts who spread disease, the overdoses, the crime and neighbourhoods like Vancouver’s grimy Downtown Eastside overrun with junkies. (My husband and I took a wrong turn out of Gastown during a visit to Vancouver in February and found ourselves practically face to face with a scary bunch of gaunt-looking addicts.)

Delegates at the conference will hear stories of desperation and of frantic efforts to stop the spread of infection. In Kazakhstan, for example, injection drug use was responsible for 75% of newly reported HIV cases last year.

The program includes presentations about needle sharing among addicts in Bangladesh and the risks of HIV among street youth in Kathmandu.

The keynote address will be given by Stephen Lewis, the UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, who has been badgering world leaders for years to do more to save lives.

But politicians hate hearing about this stuff. They generally prefer simplistic solutions to complex problems. Drug addicts? Throw them in jail. That’ll teach them.

“Prisons are incubators for disease,” says a frustrated Oscapella. “We refuse to acknowledge the reality that some people are going to use drugs and we’ve ensured that those who do use drugs use them in the most dangerous way possible.”

Dr. Martin Schechter of the University of British Columbia faculty of medicine hopes his research will lead to drug reform. He’s the principal investigator of North America’s first clinical trial of prescribed heroin for chronic addicts.

Almost 500 addicts in Vancouver and Montreal are participating.

Similar studies in Europe show the cost savings are enormous, says Schechter, who was scheduled to speak at the conference yesterday.

“I suspect (the Conservatives) will look at that kind of evidence and say this is a good investment for taxpayers,” he says.

Oscapella isn’t so optimistic. “When you’ve got Vic Toews as justice minister, be afraid. Be very afraid.”

The Edmonton Sun, Alberta