Provincial Health Officers Call on Feds to Pull Back From ‘War on Drugs’

An RCMP officer removes bags of marijuana plants from a home after a bust in Airdrie, Alta. Three prominent doctors are recommending shifting away from a law enforcement-centred drug policy to a health-centred approach that combines regulation and harm reduction. (Photo by Tim Fraser).An RCMP officer removes bags of marijuana plants from a home after a bust in Airdrie, Alta. Three prominent doctors are recommending shifting away from a law enforcement-centred drug policy to a health-centred approach that combines regulation and harm reduction. (Photo by Tim Fraser).Three leading Canadian public-health physicians have added their voices to a growing campaign calling on the federal government to radically rethink its approach to the war on drugs.

In an article published Wednesday in the journal Open Medicine, the chief medical health officers for British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia say the criminalization of drug users has proven to be “ineffective” and that mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offences represent a “complete departure from evidence-based policy making.”

The authors recommend shifting away from a law enforcement-centered drug policy to a health-centred approach that combines regulation and harm reduction.

“Let’s use an evidence-based approach, not an ideological approach,” said co-author Dr. Robert Strang, the chief public health officer for Nova Scotia, in an interview. “Clearly, what we’re doing is not effective.”

Continuing with the status quo will be costly, lead to bloated prisons and result in further unintended health consequences, including disease outbreaks among incarcerated drug users and violence among organized crime groups fighting to control the black market, Strang said.

Strang wrote the paper along with Dr. Perry Kendall, B.C.’s provincial health officer; Dr. Moira McKinnon, Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer; and Dr. Evan Wood, co-director of the Urban Health Research Initiative at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.

The publication of the article comes a couple of weeks after the Conservatives used their majority to pass their controversial omnibus crime bill, which, among other things, toughens penalties for certain drug offences and introduces mandatory minimum sentences.

The government has estimated that costs associated with the crime bill could reach about $80 million over five years.

Citing the example of the United States, the authors write that aggressive law enforcement has failed to reduce the drug supply or drive up prices.

“Instead, in recent decades, the prices of the more commonly used illegal drugs (e.g., cannabis and cocaine) have actually gone down, while potency has risen dramatically,” they said.

The claim that a health-based drug policy could lead to a rise in drug use is unfounded, the physicians say. They cite the example of Portugal, which decriminalized all drug use in 2001.

“A published review of the effects of decriminalization noted that this change was followed by ‘reductions in problematic use, drug-related harms and criminal justice overcrowding,’ with rates of drug use remaining among the lowest in the European Union,” they write.

A system of controlled regulation of illegal drugs may offer several advantages over the unregulated market run by organized crime, the authors say. Regulations could be tailored to each substance, covering how they’re marketed, sold, purchased and used.

Support for the regulation and taxation of marijuana has grown in recent months. Earlier this year, the Liberal Party of Canada passed a resolution endorsing the concept. Last month, four former attorneys general in B.C. also spoke out in favour of legalizing marijuana.

More than two-dozen current and former U.S. judges and law-enforcement officials recently sent a letter to the Harper government urging it not to repeat the mistakes of the American war on drugs, which they described as a “costly failure.”

A spokeswoman for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said Tuesday in a statement that the government is going after the “source of the illicit drug trade — the drug traffickers.”

“The kinds of offenders we are targeting are those who are involved in exploiting the addictions of others for personal profit,” Julie Di Mambro said.

She added that there are provisions in the crime bill so non-violent drug offenders can get help for their addictions and that the government’s national anti-drug strategy provides $3.6 million per year to drug treatment courts across Canada.

– Article from The Province.

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