Wednesday, October 17, 2007

'Serious time for serious crime'; Opposition pans Harper's $63.8M national anti-drug strategy as U.S.-style war on drugs

'Serious time for serious crime'; Opposition pans Harper's $63.8M national anti-drug strategy as U.S.-style war on drugs
Meagan Fitzpatrick
CanWest News Service
849 words
5 October 2007
Edmonton Journal
Copyright © 2007 Edmonton Journal

The federal government will introduce legislation this fall that would require mandatory minimum jail sentences for people convicted of "serious" drug crimes, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday.

"Currently there are no minimum prison sentences for producing and trafficking dangerous drugs like methamphetamines and cocaine," Harper told a news conference. "But these are serious crimes; those who commit them should do serious time."

But in launching the government's long-awaited, $63.8-million national anti-drug strategy in Winnipeg, Harper also promised to be compassionate toward people hooked on illegal drugs. In particular, the prime minister said he is concerned about rising drug use among youth. He also noted that drug use takes an expensive toll on the health-care system and fuels crime.

"Narcotics destroy lives. They rob young people of their futures, they tear families apart, they make our streets less safe and they lay waste to our communities."

Harper said the government's response will be two-pronged, focusing on drug addicts on one hand and on drug producers and dealers on the other.

"Drugs are dangerous and destructive. If drugs do get hold of you, there will be help to get you off them," Harper promised. "But if you sell or produce drugs, you will pay with prison time."

"Our two-track approach will be tough on the dealers and producers of drugs and compassionate for their victims."

He underlined that tough new anti-drug laws will be a major component of the government's plan, but confirmed that two-thirds of the funding will go toward the prevention and treatment of illicit drug use. The plan also includes a major national public awareness campaign aimed at youth and their parents.

"Interdiction by itself is not going to be enough," said Harper, flanked by Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day and Health Minister Tony Clement. "Our government recognizes that we also have to find new ways to prevent people from becoming enslaved to drugs and we need new laws to free them from drugs when they get hooked."

Other details unveiled by Harper about the plan included funding for the provinces and territories for drug abuse programs, modernizing treatment services and making them more widely available, financial support for youth intervention programs, more money for police agencies to investigate and prosecute drug crimes, ramping up the RCMP's drug unit programs, and increased funding for the Canada Border Services Agency.

Some details of the plan were in the last federal budget, including a breakdown of the overall funding to distribute about $10 million to prevention initiatives, $32 million for treatment for drug addicts, and $22 million to crack down on production and dealers.

"Solving Canada's drug problem will require a huge effort. We won't get clean overnight but we will put our country on the road to recovery," said Harper.

Even before it was made public, the government's plan drew darts and laurels from all sides of the drug debate. Liberal and New Democratic Party critics said the government is embracing a U.S.-style "war on drugs" that treats drug abuse as more of a criminal matter than a health issue. Liberal MP Keith Martin, a physician, and NDP MP Libby Davies both said in interviews earlier this week that the government should focus more on harm-reduction programs, such as
safe injection sites and needle exchanges.

The Vancouver safe injection site, Insite, was in danger of closing after its exemption from federal drug laws was scheduled to end at the end of this year. This week, however, the government gave the facility a six-month reprieve, extending its exemption to June 30, 2008.
Prime Minister Harper admitted on Thursday that he remains skeptical about the program and said that even if it's effective, it's a "second-best strategy at best."

"If you remain a drug addict, I don't care how much harm you reduce, you're going to have a short and miserable life," said Harper. He pledged to continue to study the program and gather the facts on it, but noted that his government's "tentative conclusion" is that safe injection sites, if allowed to operate, should operate in concert with other programs that aim to treat addicts.
Critics of the government said the reprieve for the Vancouver site was just designed to get the controversy over harm-reduction policy off the table in time for Harper's drug strategy announcement.

The Canadian Police Association, meanwhile, has expressed support for the government's get-tough approach to drugs. The organization has called for stronger legislation and a new system of graduated consequences to prevent and deter drug use. The group's president, Tony Cannavino, has called the government's promise to crack down on illegal drug use and dealers "a cornerstone, because a lot of violence is related to drugs."

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