An Irrational And Stupid Drug Policy

Canadian Health Minister Tony ClementCanadian Health Minister Tony ClementThe government’s handling of drug policy is so ignorant and foolish it is a challenge to explain why in a newspaper column. To expound on stupidity of this magnitude requires a very long book. But two images from this week do come close to capturing the full absurdity. The first is Tony Clement appearing before a Commons committee to declare his government’s opposition to the current operation of Insite, the Vancouver safe-injection pilot project.
“In my opinion, supervised injection is not medicine,” the minister told the committee. “It does not heal the person addicted to drugs.” The government wants to focus on treating addicts, the minister of health said, and preventing people from using drugs in the first place. For anyone unfamiliar with drug policy, this sounds sweetly reasonable. Why, of course we should help get addicts off drugs! Why, yes, it would be best if we stopped people from using drugs at all! Who could possibly disagree? People who actually know something about drugs and drug addiction, that’s who.

The reason why harm reduction policies like Insite came into existence is precisely because treatment routinely fails. Even the best treatment. Even if it’s lavishly funded. Some addicts will keep using — for another year, for another decade, for the rest of their lives. Harm reduction is about keeping those people alive and healthy until they do kick their habits, or, in the case of the few who never will, keeping them alive and healthy and not spreading disease and disorder. I’ve seen it at work in the Netherlands. Imagine healthy heroin addicts. With jobs. And apartments. And families. Addicts who are not a blight on the community. It’s all thanks to an array of harm reduction programs which this country is too timid to even try. I’ve also seen how addicts live in the United States, the western country that has most vigorously rejected harm reduction — and the western country with the highest drug-related fatality rate.

As for prevention, well, that’s a terrific idea. Except that real prevention means dealing with the social decay — broken families, mental illness, illiteracy — that promotes drug abuse. This government seems to think prevention means running television commercials as vapid and worthless as the Reagan-era “this is your brain on drugs” ad that is the classic of the genre.

There’s also some rich historical irony in Mr. Clement’s comment about the safe-injection facility not being medicine because it doesn’t get addicts off drugs. That’s precisely what the U.S. Supreme Court said in March, 1919, when it banned “maintenance” programs — which involved doctors prescribing the drug to which patients were addicted. A major factor in the court’s thinking was the widespread belief at the time that addiction could be cured easily thanks to a marvelous treatment invented by Charles B. Towns, a failed stockbroker. Unfortunately, it was realized not long after the ruling that Towns was a quack. But by then, it was too late. All maintenance programs had been shut down and the drug problems we are now so familiar with — black markets, violence, disease — sprouted in American cities.

In the United Kingdom, by contrast, maintenance remained the central policy for another 45 years. In all that time, the underworld drug scene scarcely existed. Of course, Mr. Clement probably thinks this is all ancient history. Who cares, right? Well, this history is being repeated. Every decade or two in this country, there’s another scare about drugs. And every decade or two, the government quickly and firmly rejects real alternatives to the status quo. And every decade or two ministers and police chiefs tell parliamentary committees that the solution is prevention, treatment and law enforcement — and they say this with all the wide-eyed enthusiasm of ignoramuses who think they are the first to ever utter these sparkling words.

So there was Tony Clement on Thursday doing the same old song and dance before yet another parliamentary committee. Whether he knew how silly he sounded promising change in the form of a nearly one-century-old status quo, I cannot say. I doubt it. His wide-eyed enthusiasm looked only too genuine.

That was the first of the two images I promised at the outset of this column. The other? It’s the military’s latest recruiting ad. Picture this: A warship rushes toward an unidentified vessel, where men are seen hurriedly pushing large containers overboard. Heavily armed soldiers storm aboard. Evil-doers are taken down at gunpoint. Cut to a press conference where an official shows off seized drugs. “Fight chaos,” the tagline reads.

The overwhelming majority of the money Canada spends on drug policy goes to law enforcement. And that’s not including what the Defence Department spends. I don’t know how much it costs to send a warship out on patrol for a day, but I suspect it could keep Insite open for a year. Insite, however, is supported by peer-reviewed scientific research. There is shockingly little evidence that law enforcement actually accomplishes what it’s supposed to. In fact, lots of experts think it does vastly more harm than good — that it doesn’t “fight chaos” so much as “spread chaos.”

So this week we saw a minister call for the closure of an inexpensive facility whose positive effects are supported by solid research. At the same time, the military called for new recruits to join a war on drugs that has never been properly researched and subjected to a cost-benefit analysis — and that would surely fail miserably if it were. That is Canadian drug policy summarized in two wretched images.

-Article from Ottawa Citizen, Saturday May 31, 2008