Conservatives' tough talk on drugs is a cheap political ploy
Barbara Yaffe, Vancouver SunPublished: Friday, August 22, 2008
The Harper government's escalating rhetoric on drug policy will turn off as many voters as it turns on.
Health Minister Tony Clement on Monday ramped up an attack on Vancouver's supervised injection site, questioning the medical ethics of health care workers who support harm reduction strategies such as Insite.
Conservatives have also mailed flyers to people across the country, equating drug pushers -- who clearly are criminals -- with junkies, who are addicts with huge social problems. It pledges: "The Conservative government will clean up drug crime."
A new Angus Reid poll reveals that, in B.C. and Alberta, arguably the region where people might be most inclined to consider the injection site when deciding which party to support, a majority of people in fact endorse Insite.
Specifically, 53 per cent of British Columbians and 56 per cent of Albertans say they strongly or moderately support the Downtown Eastside harm-reduction clinic.
Across Canada, nearly 40 per cent support it, even as 19 per cent also mistakenly believe that Insite hands out free drugs. Insite, of course, provides no more than a safe setting, clean needles and some nursing oversight.
The World Health Organization, as well as the medical establishment domestically, support harm reduction and supervised injection sites.
And a B.C. Supreme Court ruling this summer decreed that access to Insite constitutes a Charter right, to life, liberty and security of the person.
The idea is to reduce the dangers for addicts who doubtless would shoot up whether a supervised injection site existed or not. At such a site, users are resuscitated if they overdose, and have access to rehabilitation referrals.
Insite should not be considered nearly as big a problem as B.C.'s prevailing shortage of rehab facilities to help addicts get clean.
If the government were sincere in its efforts to address the drug problem, it would be putting cash into the establishment of more drug rehabilitation beds.
Instead, it's using addicts to advertise a highly political get-tough on crime approach.
The pamphlet the Harperites sent out pledges that Conservatives "will keep junkies in rehab and off the streets."
But Conservatives have been in power for 2 1/2 years and have made little if any visible headway in getting Downtown Eastside addicts -- including the ones who never use Insite -- into care or off the streets.
Indeed, the federal government has yet to respond to a plea from a Vancouver charitable foundation seeking $2 million toward capital costs for a new treatment facility for young people, in Keremeos.
The pamphlet also promises to "punish drug pushers with more jail time." This is totally non-controversial; it's hard to imagine any political party objecting to a renewed effort to keep pushers behind bars.
The text of the pamphlet further asserts: "Thugs, drug pushers and others involved in the drug trade are writing their own rules. For too long, lax Liberal governments left gangs and drug pushers to make their own rules and set their own criminal agenda. Those days are over."
"Who do you think is on the right track on crime?" concludes the message, featuring an arrow pointing to Harper's name.
In truth, the current government has only lately started seriously fussing about the Downtown Eastside. And the potential solutions to the prevailing problems there are well known, having been discussed going back to the time Philip Owen was Vancouver mayor.
What's required is a multi-pronged approach that would bring to bear more resources for education, prevention and rehabilitation services as well as beefed-up penalties for pushers and drug smugglers.
What Harper and the Conservatives are really doing is deploying an emotional, high-profile public issue to attract support at a time when the prime minister is toying with the idea of triggering a federal election.
The Harperites have a largely empty basket in terms of a political agenda and have seen much attention focused on Liberals who've gotten significant press play in the wake of their Green Shift environmental announcement.
But this particular strategy isn't terribly clever because a lot of voters support harm reduction and many others will see it as a political gambit.
© The Vancouver Sun 2008