Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Harper government to unveil get-tough national drug strategy CP

Harper government to unveil get-tough national drug strategy
822 words
29 September 2007
The Canadian Press
(c) 2007 The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.

OTTAWA _ Health Minister Tony Clement will announce it's anti-drug strategy this week with a stark warning: ``the party's over'' for illicit drug users.

``In the next few days, we're going to be back in the business of an anti-drug strategy,'' Clement told The Canadian Press.

``In that sense, the party's over.''

Shortly after taking office early last year, the Conservatives decided not to go ahead with a Liberal bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.

Since then, the number of people arrested for smoking pot has jumped dramatically in several Canadian cities, in some cases jumping by more than one third.

Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa and Halifax all reported increases of between 20 and 50 per cent in 2006 of arrests for possession of cannabis, compared with the previous year.

As a result thousands of people were charged with a criminal offence that, under the previous Liberal government, was on the verge of being classified as a misdemeanour.

Police forces said many young people were under the impression that the decriminalization bill had already passed and were smoking up more boldly than they've ever done before.

Clement says his government wants to clear up the uncertainty

``There's been a lot of mixed messages going out about illicit drugs,'' Clement said in an interview Saturday after a symposium designed to bring together Canada's arts and health communities to combat mental health issues.

There's also a health-care cost element to suggesting to young people that using illicit drugs is OK, the minister said.

``The fact of the matter is they're unhealthy,'' Clement said.

``They create poor health outcomes.''

For too long, Clement argues, governments in Canada have been sending the wrong message about drug use. It's time, he says, to take a tougher approach to dealing with the problem.

``There hasn't been a meaningful retooling of our strategy to tackle illicit drugs in over 20 years in this country,'' Clement said.

``We're going to be into a different world and take tackling these issues very seriously because (of) the impact on the health and safety of our kids.''

The Conservatives' wide-ranging $64 million anti-drug strategy is expected to combine treatment and prevention programs with stiffer penalties for illicit drug use, and a crackdown at the border against drug smuggling.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day will join Clement in announcing the plan as part of a range of initiatives to be unveiled by the Tories surrounding next month's throne speech.

Clement said treatment and prevention programs were his key priorities for the health element of the drug strategy.

``Yes, there's a justice issue to that,'' he said.

``But there's also a treatment issue, there's also a prevention issue.''

Clement has suggested in the past that he opposes so-called harm reduction strategies for combating illegal drug use, including safe-injection sites where nurses provide addicts with clean needles and a safe place to use drugs.

At a Canadian Medical Association meeting last month, he was quoted saying ``harm reduction, in a sense, takes many forms. To me, prevention is harm reduction. Treatment is harm reduction. Enforcement is harm reduction.''

The following day, a petition signed by over 130 physicians and scientists was released, condemning the Conservative government's ``potentially deadly'' misrepresentation of the positive evidence for harm reduction programs.

Vancouver's Insite safe injection clinic is facing a December 31 deadline for the renewal of a federal exemption that allows it to operate.

Critics of the Conservative government's approach to illicit drug use say the federal government would be making a serious mistake by failing to renew the exemption.

``I think there's very little chance that Mr. Clement will extend the safe injection site's permit to continue,'' says Dr. Keith Martin, a British Columbia Liberal MP and former substance-abuse physician.

``But in doing that they will be essentially committing murder.''

Advocates say safe-injection sites help to prevent the spread of serious diseases, including AIDS and Hepatitis by preventing users from sharing needles while opponents say the sites simply promote illegal drug use.

Martin says he's all for increasing penalties for people who sell illegal drugs, including gangsters, but wonders why the Tories would want to target users when he says similar strategies in other countries haven't worked.

``I can't understand why the Conservatives are embracing a war-on-drugs approach that has proven to fail,'' he said.

``By all means, go after the pushers. By all means, absolutely go after the organized crime gangs that are the real parasites in this situation,'' he added.

``But for heaven's sake, treat the user as a medical problem and adopt the solutions that have proven to work in other countries.''

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