Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Maybe we can punish the pushers

Maybe we can punish the pushers
Kelly Roesler
The Ottawa Citizen
901 words
16 October 2007
Ottawa Citizen
Copyright © 2007 Ottawa Citizen

'If you are addicted to drugs, we'll help you, and if you sell drugs, we'll punish you," Prime Minister Stephen Harper claimed recently in launching his drug strategy. The statement and the plan were met with a wave of derision from opposition parties, newspaper editorials and columns, and much of the general public, judging from an influx of letters to the editor.

There he goes again, they moaned, lamenting Harper's "ideological" decision to emphasize law enforcement as part of a multi-pronged strategy that includes treatment, education and prevention.

It seems Harper is being demonized for recognizing there are many drug dealers out there who don't suffer the debilitating effects of addiction, who are perpetuating the hugely profitable and pervasive drug market, and that it needs to be addressed.

But where is the rational discourse about law enforcement as a component of a comprehensive drug policy?

Before I am painted as a hard-right, ideological subscriber to the "law and order" philosophy, let me say this: I write as a passionate believer in harm reduction measures; in supervised injection sites, heroin prescriptions, dispensing of alcohol, even free crack kits. All of it.

As a young journalism student I was deeply moved by researching a story on the opening of Vancouver's Insite safe injection site. Simply put, I consider myself "progressive" on drug policy.
But "law" seems to have become a dirty word in our national discussion on drugs, and it shouldn't be. It's a vital piece of a greater plan that encompasses all players in the sad world of the drug trade. This includes addicts -- who need all the support, compassion, health and social supports we can offer -- and dealers, particularly high-level suppliers who drive the market, reap the profits, and especially those who, detached from drug addiction and operating from a business-like perspective, prey on the vulnerabilities of those who are addicted because it's easy.

I have seen this firsthand, in the face of a drug dealer I once met years ago. He was a friend of an acquaintance; a tall, well-built, clean-cut, 20-year-old from a well-to-do Kanata family. He was a reasonably intelligent man who enjoyed sports and music; he was a health nut and young father. He also happened to be a crack dealer.

I spoke to him once, horrified but curious to learn why he would engage in this gruesome trade. He didn't smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol, and he certainly wouldn't consider ingesting the poison he was dispensing to his poor, addicted customers. The conversation painted a chilling portrait of a lack of soul.

He despised the addicts he supplied, speaking of them with utter disgust and disdain. He saw himself as a businessman, making money because it was easy. And it was profitable; he wore top-of-the-line clothing and had money to burn. I never saw or heard of him again, but I'm still haunted by his image.

We can't attribute the entire scope of our drug problem to people like him, but we also can't deny they exist; a group of people who have discovered the warped economic principle of the trade: sell drugs but don't use them. Recognizing these "bad" guys -- in an even-handed, responsible way -- seems to me one part of a policy that is not ideologically based at either end of the spectrum. Isn't that what we're aspiring to?

I'm by no means saying Harper has the right answers -- he has a long way to go, especially when it comes to recognizing harm reduction as not only the logical, but humane policy. But as we work to help addicts, it's just as important to recognize the drug market is currently a criminal enterprise, and take aim at those perpetrating it; those whose addiction to the proceeds of trafficking can't be cured with a harm-reduction strategy. Surely we can distinguish them from the crack-addicted middlemen who deal to support their habits.

Does this mean implementing tougher laws, but working to stipulate they don't have the unintended, sweeping consequence of punishing addicts who need help? Maybe. Does this mean outright legalization of drugs? Maybe. I'm open to all of these ideas. Let's just talk about it.
The most vehement critics appear to condemn any plan or role for law enforcement (or some variation) in drug policy without offering alternatives, or at least acknowledging there are people at the heart of this who need to be dealt with in a different way. Do they think the "bad guys" will magically disappear as we focus solely on helping addicts? It's hard to tell; no one's talking about it.

We need to put aside our instinctual fears about any type of law enforcement propelling us to a U.S.-style war on drugs. There has to be a rational way to approach enforcement, in full conjunction with harm reduction.

We may not like all of what Stephen Harper is offering, but isn't it time to talk about what role
we think the law should play?

Kelly Roesler works on the Citizen's copy desk and as a freelance writer.

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