Wednesday, October 17, 2007


National News
Get-tough plan on drugs doomed, experts say; Liberal MP calls Tories' policy a triumph of ‘ideology over science,' urges medical, not moral, approach to issue
647 words
1 October 2007
The Globe and Mail
2007 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Canada's war on drugs is about to escalate. But as the federal Conservative governments prepares to unveil a new strategy that cracks down on illicit drug users, critics say they are ignoring a mountain of research that shows the get-tough approach doesn't work.

“This is a failed approach. The experiment is done. The science is in,” says Thomas Kerr, a researcher at the University of British Columbia and member of the university's faculty of medicine.

The $64-million anti-drug strategy, to be announced in the next few days, is expected to include stiffer penalties for drug offenders and more money to stop drugs getting across the border. There will also be a massive campaign to warn young people not to use drugs.

It is not expected, says Liberal MP Keith Martin, to include money for what experts call “harm reduction.” These are programs such as Vancouver's controversial safe injection site, where heroin addicts can shoot up in a sterilized, supervised setting.

The idea behind harm reduction is to reduce the health effects of drug use without requiring people to beat their addiction. Experts compare it with smokers using a nicotine patch; people still get their fix, but it is vastly preferable to smoking a pack a day.

A study published by Dr. Kerr and his colleagues last year found that the Vancouver supervised injection site, known as Insite, reduced the risk of overdoses and encouraged more users to seek treatment. It did not increase crime in the neighbourhood, nor lead to increased drug use.

But Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said he does not think the site should receive federal health money, and Health Canada must make a decision about the future of Insite by the end of the year.

Dr. Martin, a physician from British Columbia, says the Conservatives' approach is a triumph of “ideology over science.” While he supports more money for police to go after drug dealers or
organized crime, Dr. Martin says substance abuse needs to be treated as a medical problem, not a moral one.

That's the approach taken in many European countries that have much lower rates of illicit drug use than Canada, he said.

Erik Waddell, a spokesman for Health Minister Tony Clement, said yesterday that the minister was travelling and would not be available for an interview.

Mr. Waddell said he couldn't discuss the details of the new strategy either. But earlier this year, he told The Globe and Mail that the Conservatives disagreed with the Liberals' approach. “In every poll, when Canadians are asked whether they want more law enforcement or less, they want more. So the bottom line is that Canada's new government will be taking a different approach.”

The Liberals had put forward a bill to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, but the Conservatives did not reintroduce it after taking office in early 2006.
But the Liberals were also harshly criticized – by academics, doctors and the federal auditor-general – for focusing too much on enforcement.

The current drug strategy, which was renewed in 2003, devotes almost three- quarters of its resources to enforcement. Only 3 per cent of the annual $245-million goes to prevention, and another 3 per cent to harm reduction.

Barney Savage, director of public policy at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, says law enforcement is extremely important, but so is prevention, treatment and harm reduction. “You have to balance the law enforcement perspective with the health perspective.”

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police also advocates a balanced approach in dealing with drug abuse and addiction issues.

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