Money poured into the failing war on drugs would be better spent on prevention, education and treatment

Canada’s outdated drug laws are at the root of the blood-soaked gang war taking a heavy toll in Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary.

That’s what the head of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy told a crowd of 350 in Edmonton yesterday at a conference on drug harm reduction.

“We’ve had 101 years of drug prohibition in Canada,” Eugene Oscapella said. “All of the problems we have seen with drugs have occurred under this system. The solution is not to do more of the same.”

Oscapella dismissed the federal government’s tough anti-gang bill, introduced last week, as political pandering that will do nothing to halt the drug trade or stem the epidemic of drug addiction.

He said the proposed measures, such as mandatory sentences for anyone caught selling drugs near schools, will really target small-timers – young people and addicts desperate to make money to support their own habits.

“This isn’t going to get the big guys,” he said. “This will only help catch the amateurs and the dabblers.”

Just hours earlier, more bodies piled up in five separate shootings in the Metro Vancouver area that left two dead and two more wounded.

They’re the latest in dozens of shootings in all three western metropolises as various crime groups fight over the drug trade.

Oscapella argues that if drugs were legalized, there would be no turf war.

“There are three reasons why criminals are in the drug trade,” he said. “Money, money and money.”

One kilogram of opium is worth about $90. It takes 10 kilograms of opium to produce one kilogram of heroin, which can be cut with additives and sold on the street for about $300,000.

“That’s what prohibition does,” he said.

Oscapella said the money and effort poured into the drug war should be spent on prevention, education and treatment programs for addicts.

Better yet, he said, the money could be used to combat the root causes behind so much drug use – poverty, abuse, mental illness.

“We can criminalize, punish and condemn users all we want, but that’s not going to do a thing to stop it,” Oscapella said.

“Banning these drugs does not deal with the poverty to the spirit that makes people want to alter their state of mind.”

Lenny Stevenson agrees wholeheartedly.

The self-described best-dressed crackhead in Edmonton spent 16 years in the correctional system, mostly as punishment for his addiction.

Nowadays, he volunteers with Streetworks, an outreach program that works with addicts and other people on the street.

Stevenson is well-groomed, looks fit and has an enthusiastic handshake. He’s 53 but could pass for 10 years younger.

See him on the street and you’d never guess he’s been pumping cocaine into his system for more than 25 years – and still uses.

“Yeah, I hear that a lot,” he says agreeably. “They say this lifestyle is supposed to age you, but it hasn’t had that effect on me.”

At its worst, his addiction cost him $300 a day, mostly by shoplifting. These days, Stevenson’s down to about $60 a week, all paid out of legitimate means.

“It’s just not enjoyable any more,” he explains. “I don’t really know why I’m still doing it, but I can finally see that the day is coming when I’ll be completely clean.”

But, he says, nobody else can choose that day for him. No laws banning drugs and no amount of jail time will force him to give up his crack pipe.

Stevenson managed to stretch a four-year criminal conviction into 16 years of jail time and probation because he kept violating his parole by using drugs – the siren call of getting high was simply more powerful than the fear of doing more time.

“No one can make you quit,” he says, “you have to want it personally.

“When you’re ready, you have to know people are there to support you. Punishing people won’t do anything.”

– Article from The Edmonton Sun.