Storm Brews Over Canadian Drug Strategy: “Drug War a Failure”

Are The Conservative Drug Plans Up In Smoke?Are The Conservative Drug Plans Up In Smoke?VANCOUVER & OTTAWA – The federal investment in the war on drugs has been an abject failure, according to a report to be published Monday. Canada’s drug strategy, renewed with much fanfare in 2003, has put too much emphasis on law enforcement instead of on means to combat illicit drug use and minimize its human toll, says the report that is to appear in the HIV/AIDS Policy and Law Review.
The criticism appears unlikely to sway the federal Conservative government from its intention, confirmed by a Health Department spokesman, to tilt the strategy even further toward pure law-enforcement measures.

The study, which found that critical programs in prevention, treatment and research are being underfunded, comes five years after Canada’s Auditor-General issued a scathing report that said the country’s drug strategy focused too heavily on enforcement and needed a more “balanced approach.”

Further, despite a mandate to do so every two years, the drug strategy’s secretariat has yet to issue its first report to taxpayers, and hardly any of the strategy’s initiatives, particularly police measures, are evaluated for results, the new study says. Its four authors are with the renowned B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, world leaders in the study of AIDS-related issues.

“The federal government continues to invest heavily in policies and practices that have repeatedly been shown in the scientific literature to be ineffective or harmful,” the study team concludes.

Using Access to Information and data compiled from a variety of government websites, the published study examined how Canada’s drug strategy has allocated funds and its effectiveness in reducing drug-related harm, which is the strategy’s stated aim. It found that law enforcement consumed by far the largest chunk (73 per cent) of the drug strategy’s annual $245-million budget, with no demonstrated impact on curbing the use of illegal drugs. At the same time, 14 per cent is spent on treatment, 7 per cent on research, and 3 per cent each for addiction prevention and harm reduction.

“The overwhelming emphasis continues to be on conventional enforcement-based approaches which are costly and often exacerbate, rather than reduce, drug-related harm,” the study says. The authors say that illicit drug use by Canadians is higher than ever, and so are ensuing health costs, primarily from rising HIV infections among injection drug users, says their report.

In an interview, study author Thomas Kerr, also with the faculty of medicine at the University of British Columbia, said he fears matters will worsen under such a U.S.-style, get-tough-on-drugs philosophy. “You would be hard-pressed to find one credible expert who believes the strategy in the United States is working,” Dr. Kerr said. “It doesn’t reduce drug use, and it doesn’t promote public health. I am very concerned we are going to be taking many steps backward.”

In fact, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper unveiled his plan for a national drug strategy during the last election campaign, he made no mention of treatment and prevention, promising instead to institute harsher punishments, prevent the decriminalization of marijuana, and make so-called “precursor drugs” more difficult to obtain.

Erik Waddell, spokesman for Health Minister Tony Clement, confirmed that the Conservatives will be following a different path, with even more emphasis on law enforcement. “Our own national drug strategy is in the works. It’s something we’ve actually been working on for some time,” Mr. Waddell said. “The previous government took its own approach, which we happen to disagree with. In every poll, when Canadians are asked whether they want more law enforcement or less, they want more. So the bottom line is that Canada’s new government will be taking a different approach.”

In December of 2001, Auditor-General Sheila Fraser criticized federal attempts to curb illicit drug use. Ms. Fraser said the government’s actions to that point had “focused on supply reduction [enforcement]not demand reduction.”

Fredericton Police Chief Barry MacKnight, who chairs the drug abuse committee of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, said he agrees that prevention and treatment have to be emphasized along with enforcement. “The CAPC has always endorsed a balanced approach in dealing with the drug abuse and addiction issues in our communities,” Chief MacKnight said yesterday.

Libby Davies, the NDP House Leader whose Vancouver riding is home to Vancouver’s safe-injection site for heroin addicts, said she fears that the Conservative government is interested only in penalizing users rather than helping them kick the habit. “They are ideologically driven to play this game that enforcement is going to deal with addiction and drug use and substance issues, which it isn’t,” Ms. Davies said. “Criminalizing drug users is not only harmful but it doesn’t make any economic sense.”

The authors of the new report point out that while an innovative project such as Vancouver’s safe-injection site is held to an extraordinary standard of scrutiny, traditional approaches are rarely evaluated by the government. The authors point specifically to the widespread DARE program that puts police into schools to warn students about drugs. In 2004-05, drug strategy funds were used to recertify 550 existing DARE officers and train 150 more. “Yet studies published in peer-reviewed journals . . . have been consistent in showing that the program does not prevent or delay drug use, nor does it affect future intentions to use drugs,” the study says.

Drug courts don’t measure up either, despite their growing popularity, taking more than $3-million in drug strategy funds in 2004-05 without solid scientific evidence that they work, the study says. And the economic costs of the program’s failures are high, the study points out. In Vancouver alone, the medical bill for treating HIV infections among injection drug users has been estimated at more than $215-million a year.

Dr. Kerr said he finds it “immensely frustrating” that so much government money is spent on law enforcement and so little on harm reduction. “I’m paid to treat disease and death, and I don’t like what I’m seeing. Canada simply does not have an evidence-based drug strategy,” he said. “There’s way too much ideology and politics, and not enough science and principle.”

Julio Montaner, president-elect of the International AIDS Society and director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, said the public-health implications of drug addiction cannot be overemphasized. “We are in this business because drug addiction has become a significant determinant of HIV infection and hepatitis C,” said Dr. Montaner, who was also involved in the study.

Yet critics, such as the RCMP, abound over the city’s safe-injection site, which is trying to curb unsafe drug practices, he said. “They go around posturing that this spending of money on harm reduction could be the end of Canada’s drug strategy.”

The study’s audit of the strategy’s budget shows that “to be so far from the truth it’s not funny. It uncovers the spin masters who are trying to put out a message of fear-mongering over harm reduction,” Dr. Montaner said, which accounts for only 3 per cent of drug strategy funds. “The study also points to the inadequacy and inefficiency of current spending. There is no assessment of law-enforcement measures, while selected new initiatives are held to extraordinary levels of proof. Then, when they show some benefit, there is a strong desire to ignore the evidence,” he said.

– From The Globe And Mail