Wednesday, October 17, 2007

FEDERAL DRUG STRATEGY Editorial, Globe and Mail

How to address those addictions
424 words
9 October 2007
The Globe and Mail
2007 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The federal government's new anti-drug strategy is not as simplistic as advance comments by the Conservatives – notably Health Minister Tony Clement's silly “the party's over” declaration – might have led one to believe. It does not merely ape the failed “War on Drugs” strategy employed by the United States. Rather than treat addicts as criminals, it is sympathetic to their plight, devoting two-thirds of the program's $64-million in funding to treatment and prevention. But it would stand a much better chance of success if it were not undermined by a rigid single-mindedness.

From Prime Minister Stephen Harper's perspective, fighting the evils of drug use is entirely about getting Canadians to stop taking drugs. He rejects the ideas behind harm-reduction programs such as the Insite safe injection facility for heroin users in Vancouver.

“I remain a skeptic that you can tell people that we won't stop the drug trade, we won't get you off drugs, we won't even send messages to discourage drug use but somehow we will keep you addicted but reduce the harm just the same,” he said in announcing the new strategy last week. “If you remain a drug addict, I don't care how much harm you reduce, you are going to have a short and miserable life.”

Nobody will dispute the fact that it is better to avoid drug use entirely than to use drugs more safely. But it's not as easy as it sounds. Some potential drug users might be swayed by prevention campaigns, and some addicts will voluntarily enter rehabilitation. Yet all the available evidence shows that no efforts by governments will get the most hardened addicts to kick their habit. That leaves two options: abandon those people altogether or attempt to limit the health and social costs of their illness.

The harm-reduction programs rejected by Mr. Harper do much in that regard. Insite reduces needle-sharing in the community, limiting the spread of disease. It saves lives by preventing addicts from dying of overdoses. It reduces the number of people injecting drugs in public places and leaving needles behind. Far from endorsing drug abuse, it encourages treatment. According to research, one in five regular visitors enlists in detoxification programs.

Instead of abandoning such efforts, the government should be expanding them. A sensible anti-drug strategy would do so. Unfortunately, Mr. Harper appears under the misguided impression that prevention and harm reduction are mutually exclusive.

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