DRCNet Interview: Larry Campbell, Mayor of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada 11/14/03

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Vancouver, British Columbia, is on the cutting edge of drug reform in the Western Hemisphere. The city's ambitious "Four Pillars" program to deal with the negative consequences of drug use under prohibition integrates prevention, treatment, law enforcement, and harm reduction in a comprehensive package that could be a model for cities from Buenos Aires to Boston. Part of the Four Pillars program was the September opening of the hemisphere's first safe injection site for needle users, located in the heart of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, long notorious as the largest congregation of hard-core drug users on the continent. But Vancouver's vanguard role in drug reform is not limited to the hard drug scene; the city is also home to well-known cannabis cafes where on-premise smoking is de rigueur, a cannabis-friendly bed and breakfast, more than 30 shops catering to marijuana growers, and an estimated 10,000 marijuana grow ops.

While tolerance and liberalization were a hallmark of the administration of former Mayor Phillip Owen, Owen's failure to garner the political support to move fast on implementing the Four Pillars strategy helped carry Larry Campbell and his Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) to a smashing victory last year. Campbell, a former Royal Canadian Mounted Police narcotics officer who became Vancouver's coroner and saw the downside of prohibitionist practices staring up at him from the morgue, made rapid implementation of the Four Pillars program a central component of his campaign. While Owen and Campbell have been political rivals, they share a common commitment to drug reform in Vancouver, for which they were both honored at last weekend's Drug Police Alliance conference in New Jersey. Campbell also impressed the crowd in New Jersey with his wit, steadfastness in the face of American criticism, and his humane approach to drug policy. DRCNet spoke with Campbell on Wednesday.

Drug War Chronicle: It's been two years or so since the Four Pillars plan was elaborated. You've had a heavy police presence on the Downtown Eastside since April and a safe injection site up and running since September. What is the current status of the Four Pillars plan and what remains to be done?

Mayor Campbell

Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell: We have dedicated funding in place for the safe injection site through the federal and provincial governments, but policing costs will be a city responsibility. We had a meeting on that this morning. The city is going through a real transition now because of all the baby boomers retiring, and we need to reexamine city finances. As for treatment, we will be having a conference later this month and we will be asking for a catalog of treatment programs within the province. There is a widespread sense that we don't have enough treatment facilities, but we don't know if that is really true -- no one has a real handle on it. With prevention, we need to move forward. All we have right now is D.A.R.E., and we have seen that if you use science-based evaluations of D.A.R.E., it hasn't proven its worth. We need to look at how we can better educate our students, how best to tell them what drugs are, what they do and what will happen if things go bad, while at the same time recognizing that some of them will choose to use drugs.

Chronicle: Can you talk a little about the process of coming up with the plan? We're especially interested in the notion of the "stakeholder" and in bringing drug users into the discussion. How and why did you accomplish that?

The involvement of drug users is absolutely critical. When we talk about drug use and drug users, all we're really talking about is what we think is going on. We needed to talk to people who are actually on the street, and we did, and they were very important in setting up the safe injection site, as well as being of great benefit for their insights on treatment and prevention. The drug users themselves formed an organization, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (http://www.vandu.org) and brought themselves to the table and made sure they were heard. It wasn't a matter of letting them in; they let themselves in. People like VANDU's Anne Livingston and Dean Wilson were crucial to building the coalition that created Four Pillars, because they could explain what was going on from the addict's perspective.

Chronicle: On another topic, there are an estimated 10,000 or so marijuana grow-ops in the city. What is Vancouver doing about them, and what is the ultimate solution? Should marijuana be not decriminalized but legalized?

Campbell: Marijuana should be legalized and controlled. We should tax the hell out of it with the revenue earmarked for health care, but I don't foresee that happening in my lifetime. We can't even get a decriminalization bill through [Editor's Note: See newsbrief this issue], although if we did, maybe people could grow it themselves. Now, most grow ops are controlled by organized crime, and we do go after them. In fact, we bust grow ops on a daily basis. But the main reason is not because they're growing pot but because of neighborhood safety issues. These guys typically cut into the electric power supply because they don't want their high usage to show up on their bills, then they hook up lights and timers and water systems. These houses catch fire frequently. And sometimes the families who are put in to guard the grow ops have kids, and those kids end up being exposed to high levels of carbon dioxide.

Chronicle: US drug czar John Walters and other American political figures have been harshly critical of the safe injection site in Vancouver and of Canadian "leniency" on drug policy. How much attention do you pay to the Americans?

Campbell: As I told the people in New Jersey, Walters and I are no longer exchanging Christmas cards. But seriously, I pay no attention whatsoever to Walters. He is probably the most misinformed person in the whole United States. Most US states have more liberal policies on marijuana than we do. I do pay attention to Americans; they're my friends and I don't want to cause them any harm. But Walters is just the latest in a long line of failed generals in a war they claim isn't even being fought adequately. But if this were a real war, they'd all be fired.

Chronicle: In New Jersey, you talked about the progressive role of the Vancouver police in implementing Four Pillars. But there have been allegations of police misconduct, such as the Stanley Park beatings, as well as critical reports from the Pivot Legal Aid Society and Human Rights Watch over the police crackdown on the Downtown Eastside (http://www.hrw.org/reports/2003/canada/ and http://www.hrw.org/press/2003/06/canada0623031-ltr.htm). What do you say to those criticisms?

Campbell: The Vancouver police force is the only force in all of North America that has bought into harm reduction and the Four Pillars strategy. They understand that we need to approach this as a medical problem, but at the same time we have to enforce the laws against drug trafficking. As for Pivot and Human Rights Watch, Pivot is a well-known organization in this city. When I became mayor, I told them to bring complaints forward to me, but they didn't. And Human Rights Watch should be cleaning up their own backyard. I dismiss them out of hand because they just blew into town, didn't speak to anyone with the city -- only those involved in the seedier side -- then left and issued an unfair report. I met with them after they issued their report and told them that, and they barely responded. I don't have any time for them now.

Chronicle: You are a former member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. We heard rumors that you will be joining Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (http://www.leap.cc). Is that true? And does that mean you support legalization and regulation for all currently illicit drugs?

Campbell: I'm thinking about it. I just got back from New Jersey and I'm looking at their brchures, but I still have to do some research on this. I know one Vancouver police officer who already joined up. They certainly lend credibility to what we are trying to do. As for legalization, ending prohibition would be the logical way to go, but at the end of the day I know it's not going to happen. If we can't even legalize marijuana, the chances of legalizing the rest of it are pretty slim, but I agree with the idea of legalization. We have to continue thinking in a progressive manner when it comes to drugs. If we don't, we won't be able to have a healthy society and we won't be able to keep our people alive. And that's what it's all about.

-- END --
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Issue #311, 11/14/03 DRCNet Interview: Larry Campbell, Mayor of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada | South Carolina: High School Drug Raid Sparks Incredulity, Outrage | DRCNet Honchos Challenge DC with CD -- Borden and Guard Refuse to Report for Jury Service in Protest of Drug Laws | Drug Policy Alliance 2003 Conference | BUSTED: Special Video Offer for DRCNet Members | Newsbrief: Canada Decriminalization Bill Dies Quiet Death | Newsbrief: Bolivian Intellectuals Issue Call for Debate on Coca Law | Newsbrief: FAMM Study Show States Embracing "Smart on Crime" Reforms | Newsbrief: Illinois Targets Ecstasy, Speed on Campus | Newsbrief: Texas Drug Task Force Prosecutor Plays "Let's Make a Deal" With Wealthy Defendants | This Week in History | DRCNet Temporarily Suspending Our Web-Based Write-to-Congress Service Due to Funding Shortfalls -- Your Help Can Bring It Back -- Keep Contacting Congress in the Meantime | Perry Fund Accepting Applications for 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 School Years, Providing Scholarships for Students Losing Aid Because of Drug Convictions | The Reformer's Calendar
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