Tory Drug Strategy Makes Problem Worse

The 'war on drugs' has led to increased violence in every country where it has been attempted. (Vancouver Sun)The ‘war on drugs’ has led to increased violence in every country where it has been attempted. (Vancouver Sun)Before Stephen Harper’s Conservatives took power, an exhaustive national consultative process led by Health Canada and the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse informed the development of Canada’s National Drug Strategy.

The painstaking and inclusive process, which involved all federal political parties and virtually all stakeholder groups, aimed to remove the rhetoric and emotion that have traditionally guided Canada’s response to illicit drugs and, instead, sought to incorporate the best available scientific evidence into the fight against the drug scourge.

The central aim of the strategy was “to ensure that Canadians can live in a society increasingly free of the harms associated with problematic substance use,” and differed from the U.S. approach in that it put emphasis on reducing harm, rather than the less pragmatic goal of making society “drug free.”

However, when the Tories assumed power in 2006, the results of this exhaustive effort were thrown out before the strategy could be implemented and a new Tory “Anti-Drug Strategy” was soon released. Although the pre-existing drug strategy had been criticized by a 2001 auditor-general’s report, which demonstrated that 93 per cent of federal funding already went towards law enforcement, the Tories’ new anti-drug strategy redoubled the focus of Canada’s drug control efforts on law enforcement.

This re-aligned Canada’s anti-drug efforts with the U.S.’s longstanding “war on drugs,” and documents obtained through freedom of information requests have demonstrated the close collaboration between Conservative cabinet ministers and senior bureaucrats from the Bush White House in helping craft the Tories’ anti-drug plans.

From a scientific perspective, the results of the Conservatives’ anti-drug strategy could have been anticipated well before it was enacted. Under the Tories, arrests for drugs, particularly the possession of marijuana, have increased, while drug supply and use has been unaffected. Unfortunately, in addition to having been proven ineffective at reducing drug supply, the American approach to dealing with drugs has resulted in a number of severe unintended consequences.

Most importantly, the global drug war has created a massive illicit market, with an estimated annual value of $320 billion US. In some cases, these enormous illegal revenues threaten the political stability of entire regions, such as Mexico, several South American countries and, more recently Afghanistan. Paradoxically, ever-increasing drug enforcement expenditures have not prevented the growth of this market; instead, a global long-term pattern of falling drug prices and increasing drug purity and supply has been observed.

In terms of additional harms, in the U.S., where the war on drugs has been fought most vigorously, the jailing of illicit drug offenders has contributed to the world’s highest incarceration rate. Primarily as a result of drug-law enforcement, one in eight African-American males in the age group 25 to 29 was incarcerated on any given day in the U.S. in 2007, despite the fact that ethnic minorities consume illicit drugs at comparable rates to other subpopulations in the U.S.

Although the U.S. is now aggressively moving away from mandatory minimum sentences, the mandatory minimums for drug offences being proposed by the Harper government should help reproduce this pattern in Canada. If trends continue, it will likely be the first nations population that is most affected by these new laws.

An additional concern is the consistent association between drug prohibition and increased drug market violence. A recent international example is the upsurge in severe drug-related violence in Mexico coinciding with President Felipe Calderon’s announcement of an escalation in the fight against Mexican drug traffickers.

Locally, the rash of severe, drug-related gun violence plaguing Vancouver is a direct result of Canada’s approach to illicit drugs.

If one doubts the strong relationship between this violence and drug prohibition, a useful reflection is to compare how trends in funding for alcohol and drug prohibition in the U.S. have coincided with trends in U.S. homicide rates.

Finally, there is a range of public health concerns directly stemming from the war on drugs, and chief among these is the transmission of HIV among injection drug users. In Canada, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has been hardest hit, but according to the UN Reference Group on HIV and Injection Drug Use, it is estimated that the largest numbers of drug injectors live in China, the U.S., and Russia.

It is no coincidence that these three nations also have among the world’s most punitive drug laws and lead the world in the number of incarcerated individuals. This pattern is consistent with the findings of the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health Survey Initiative, which found that countries with more stringent prohibitive drug policies did not demonstrate lower levels of drug use than countries with policies that focused on alternative approaches.

The unintended consequences of the U.S. drug control efforts recently led to a unanimous resolution at the 2007 annual United States Conference of Mayors which stated that “[t]he United States Conference of Mayors believes the war on drugs has failed and calls for a new bottom line in U.S. drug policy, a public health approach that concentrates more fully on reducing the negative consequences associated with drug abuse, while ensuring that our policies do not exacerbate these problems or create new social problems of their own.”

Unfortunately, in addition to massive funding directed towards law enforcement and prisons, the U.S. war on drugs has also involved a longstanding global public education effort aimed at reinforcing public support for criminal justice approaches for dealing with drugs. This makes strategies, such as those of the Harper Tories, politically popular despite their proven ineffectiveness.

Evan Wood is director of the urban health program at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and associate professor in the department of medicine at UBC.

– Article from The Vancouver Sun on March 23, 2009.