Tolerance is Life, Prohibition is Death
Swiss experiment confirms Canadian studies, that decriminalization of heroin will save manylives.
Swiss give heroin to those who needit
In July, the Swiss government declared its experiment with state-distributed heroin a great success. Their study found that giving away heroin to those who are addicted to it had dramatically improved their health, welfare and general social standing.
The conclusions are supported by Swiss health and law enforcement experts, who claim the program should be continued.
Clean, affordable heroin
The three-year pilot heroin distribution program began in early 1994, and involved over 1100 long-term heroin users in 15 cities. Users were given daily doses of heroin from doctors at certified medical centres and one prison. There was a $10 a day charge for the heroin, but it was waived for those who could not pay it.
Massive reduction in crime
More than two-thirds of the heroin users had been involved in illegal prostitution, drug trafficking and other criminal activity when they enrolled in the program. That number dropped to under ten percent when they were provided with an affordable and reliable source of legal, safe heroin.
“I know of no other crime prevention program with such a big reduction in theft and other serious crimes,'” said Martin Killias of the Swiss Institute of Police Science and Criminology.
Benefits to health and employment
Dr Felix Gutzwiller, a doctor in the program, said the incidence of infection with the AIDS virus, hepatitis, and other blood disorders dropped dramatically, and the number of deaths was cut in half.
Other benefits for those enrolled in the program included:
Canadian studies support Swiss results
The results of the Swiss experiment shouldn’t be news to Canadian health officials, as they merely confirmed the recommendations of two major Canadian studies into the effects of drug prohibition.
Two years, ago, the Chief Coroner of BC recommended that prescribing heroin to addicts would save many lives. More recently, two months before the Swiss released their final results, the Canadian National Task Force on HIV, AIDS and Injection Drug Use, acknowledged that prescribing heroin to addicts would dramatically reduce the spread of HIV and other disease.
Canada’s Task Force on Drugs & AIDS
The Task Force was funded by Health Canada and included representatives from the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the Addiction Research Society, the Canadian AIDS Society, the Canadian Bar Association, and a number of other related organizations.
The Task Force report acknowledges that the prohibition of injection drug use is a major factor in the spread of HIV, and that prohibition also causes unnecessary discrimination and degradation of injection drug users.
The report makes the recommendation that the personal possession of all drugs be decriminalized, and that the legal prescription of heroin and cocaine be permitted.
The Chief Coroner’s Report
These recommendations are similar to those found in the 1995 report of BC’s Chief Coroner, Vince Cain. The Chief Coroner was asked by the BC NDP government to investigate why illegal drug use had become the number one cause of death for BC adults between the ages of 30-45, particularly in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.
Vince Cain, who used to be a cop and has described himself as “more right-wing than Preston Manning,” spent eight months meeting with injection drug users, health care workers and other professionals across BC.
Cain’s comprehensive report makes many recommendations dealing with all aspects of social drug policy, and sensibly concludes that “society must now reject negative criminal sanctions as the source of social control in drug abuse, and turn instead to some other methods of control.”
His report specifically advocates the legalization of marijuana, the prescription of other drugs for those shown to be addicted to them, and increased funding and support for the needle exchange and other harm reduction measures.
BC NDP support prohibition
The Chief Coroner’s Report has been essentially ignored since it came out. Even though BC’s governing NDP party commissioned the report and officially supports decriminalization, they have done nothing to promote or implement its life-saving recommendations. In fact, it’s been quite the opposite.
BC’s Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh has been openly promoting longer jail terms and 25-year prison sentences, without parole, for anyone nabbed smuggling any illegal substance, including first-time offenders. Dosanjh wants traffickers to get ten years for a first offence, and life in prison for a second, no matter what the substance or quantity involved.
While Dosanjh has conceded that penalties for simple possession of drugs should not be increased, he said it would be up to the federal justice minister to lead a debate over any lightening of penalties or decriminalization. Despite wanting to put even the smallest of pot dealers in prison for ten years, Dosanjh said he is “not puritanical at all about these issues. If we’re going to deal with [decriminalization], we require a national debate? I would not be leading that debate.”
The BC Attorney General has a mandate to lead the debate, whether he likes it or not. The Chief Coroner’s Report specifically recommends that the Attorney General should “enter into discussion with the federal Ministers of Justice and Health? on the feasibility of decriminalizing the possession and use of specific substances? and seriously inquire about the merits of legalizing possession of marijuana.”
Prohibition is death in Vancouver
Vancouver has more injection drug users than any other Canadian city, and a lack of access to clean, legal heroin continues to kill them at an astounding rate. About one person dies of a “drug overdose” every day in Vancouver, which is usually a combination of alcohol and heroin of unknown potency. In addition, about 25% of Vancouver’s injection drug users have HIV, which is more than any other North American city. That total is expected to rise to an astounding 40% within a year, unless dramatic steps are taken.
Mayor and Police Chief add more cops
Mayor Philip Owen has responded primarily by adding more cops to the Downtown Eastside and complaining about how police don’t have enough power to search and arrest people. This policy has also been adopted by Vancouver’s new Chief of Police, Bruce Chambers, whose first move after taking over in August was to add 16 new cops to Canada’s poorest zip code.
Chambers said he is using the department’s overtime budget to fund the added police presence, as well as pulling people from other parts of the city to walk the beat. “The open and flagrant disregard for the law, and the open use and sale of narcotics, will certainly, hopefully, end,” said Chambers. “In addition, officers will alert tourists to the problems in Gastown and Chinatown, so they can protect themselves and their possessions.”
The BC government has apparently got $3 million lined up to “help intravenous drug users”, but can’t decide how best to spend the money. If Mayor Owen and Attorney General Dosanjh really want to get the drug users off of the street, they should emulate Switzerland and get together to make places where drugs can be used safely. If they really want to reduce property crime, they should help provide drug users with clean, safe heroin at an affordable price.
The Back Alley safer fixing site
In April of 1995, a group of Vancouver’s street heroin users set up a “safer fixing site” called “The Back Alley”, where they allowed users to gather, hang out, and inject drugs if they chose. They were quickly overflowing with users who wanted nothing more than to get off the street to a place where they could use their drugs without being harassed by police.
The Back Alley would have loved to have been able to hire a nurse or two to staff the place and assist in emergencies, and amenities like a row of sinks and extra toilets would have been a godsend. Yet with little funding and a lot of love they were able to provide a safer and friendlier alternative to the streets and the real back alleys of Vancouver.
In early 1997, local news station UTV did an “expose” of the Back Alley, sneaking in a hidden camera to exploit the often gruesome reality of injection drug use. The televised version of what was actually a vast improvement in the lives of many was too much for some elements of the public, which resulted in the Back Alley losing the grant money which had been funding them. The location was shut down and those that had frequented the place returned to shooting up in alleyways.
The premature closure of the Back Alley was a tragic setback, both for the lives of Vancouver’s most destitute and abused citizens, and also for any campaign to “clean up” the streets of the city. The humane and intelligent way to get “flagrant” drug use off of the streets is not to harass and imprison those who are doing it, but rather to allow and even help them to build a safe, private place, where they can peacefully use the drugs that they apparently need, at a greatly reduced risk to themselves and cost to society.
It could work here
The amazing success of the Swiss study has shown that the recommendations of the Chief Coroner’s Report and the Task Force Report would save lives and improve the health and well being of Vancouver’s most downtrodden. The Dutch will soon be confirming this policy as well, as Holland’s Health Minister Els Borst-Eilers has said she wants to distribute free heroin to around 750 addicts on a trial basis. Speaking on television, she said that the most addicted heroin-users should be given preference, but that the test must be carried out on a large scale to be worthwhile.
The Coroner’s Report has been given occasional lip service, but has otherwise been ignored by the government that asked for it. The future of the Task Force Report has yet to unfold, but so far it’s been given little attention. Meanwhile the bodies keep on piling up and the jails keep getting more crowded in Vancouver and across Canada.
Contact City Hall
Since Vancouver has more injection drug users and higher rates of HIV than anywhere else in Canada, it has the opportunity to demonstrate that tolerance and decriminalization are more successful social drug policies than police harassment, arrests and prison.
If you live in Vancouver or BC, then please write to Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh and Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen, asking that they follow the recommendations of the Chief Coroner’s Report and the positive results of the Swiss experiment.
If you don’t live in BC we could still use your help, as we want our politicians to know that the eyes of the world are upon them. It’s also worthwhile to contact your own city council, to make them aware of the Chief Coroner’s Report and the results of the Swiss experiment, and to encourage them to support similar policies.
Mayor & Council, Vancouver City Hall, 453 West 12th Ave, V5Y 1V4; tel 873-7621; fax: 873-7750,
email [email protected].
BC Attorney General, Ujjal Dosanjh, Parliament Buildings, Victoria, V8V 1X4;
For a copy of the Swiss Study or the Canadian Task Force Report, contact the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy, 70 MacDonald Street, Ottawa, K2P 1H6;