The Conservative government of Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper is set to reveal what is expected to be a US-style approach to drug policy any day now. While action in parliament is unlikely until after the looming summer recess, battle lines are already being drawn in what promises to be a bitter fight.
pro-Insite demonstrators (photo courtesy timetodeliver.org)
Although the government has yet to reveal particulars, it is widely assumed that the new drug strategy will take a "tough on crime" approach to drugs, cracking down on grow-ops and drug sellers with harsher penalties, providing more money for law enforcement, and moving away from harm reduction approaches such as Vancouver's Insite
safe injection site.
"There will be a heavier emphasis on enforcement, with some additional money for treatment," said Eugene Oscapella, head of the Canadian Drug Policy Foundation. "The other thing is they want mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses, especially serious trafficking offenses," he told Drug War Chronicle.
An early hint of the Harper government's drug policy came in March, when Conservatives allocated an extra $70 million over two years for enforcement, treatment, and prevention, but no mention was made of harm reduction programs. In Canada, these also include needle exchanges and the distribution of sterile crack pipes.
Of the additional funding, treatment programs will get nearly half, law enforcement about a third, and the rest will go into "just say no" style youth prevention program. The new drug strategy is also expected to endorse the use of drug courts, where drug offenders can be ordered into treatment programs instead of jail or prison.
The Canadian federal government currently spends about $350 million a year on anti-drug efforts, the vast majority of which goes to law enforcement, with lesser amounts for treatment and prevention, and a pittance for harm reduction. Canadian drug policy is guided by a 20-year-old national drug strategy that has been widely criticized for lacking clear direction, targets, and measurable results.
What the Harper government is proposing is not the answer, says a growing chorus of critics. The Liberal Party was quick off the mark to attack the yet-to-be-seen Conservative drug strategy.
"Stephen Harper's government is expected to announce next week new measures that will retreat from harm reduction measures that help Canadians, such as the safe injection site in Vancouver," said Liberal Health critic Bonnie Brown in a press release last week. "They are trying to do this under the guise of cracking down on illicit drug trafficking and prevention -- even though all the research suggests that an ideologically-motivated war on drugs is ineffective, while programs such as the safe injection site are producing positive results."
A series of reports -- including the Canadian Medical Association Journal and the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS -- have concluded that the site has had a positive effect on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, and has not increased crime or addiction rates, or threatened public health and safety.
"Rather than focusing its efforts where they are needed most -- such as funding the safe injection site and other programs vital to a larger harm reduction strategy in Canada -- this government is putting its right-wing agenda ahead of scientific evidence, and at a tremendous cost to those affected by addiction," said Brown.
Brown's charge resonates with a number of Canadian researchers. "The science is there. What we're seeing here is political interference," said Dr. Thomas Kerr with the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, who has led several research studies on Insite. "I think it's a sad day for drug policy in Canada given that the Conservative government is now advocating a US-style approach to drug policy that's been shown to fail," he told reporters in Vancouver last week.
Kerr isn't the only one complaining. Several prominent researchers from across Canada have written an open letter to Health Canada criticizing it for calling for new research on Insite despite years of research showing positive incomes. The call for proposals from Health Canada ensures that the research will be superficial and inadequately funded, they said. They also took issue with a condition that researchers not be allowed to talk about their findings for six months after reports are submitted.
"Clearly what that does is to muffle people who might have something to say until after the curtain has dropped on this piece of political theatre," Benedikt Fischer, a director of the BC Centre for Addictions Research at the University of Victoria, said in an interview last Friday. "Overall, we get the feeling that what this is about is there's an attempt to instrumentalize science in a fairly cheap way for politics."
"The Conservatives don't like InSite," said Oscapella. "This is not an issue of science, but of ideology and playing to the peanut gallery. They have tried to misstate its purpose, what it has achieved, and the position of other countries. This is a propaganda exercise by the government to further its electoral objectives," he said.
"But the Liberals are no angels, either," he pointed out. "They had three opportunities to reform the cannabis laws and they didn't do that. I give them some credit for the medical marijuana regulations, but at the same time, the process is now incredibly cumbersome. They backed away from decriminalization. In effect, they backed a tough drug war, but with softer rhetoric."
"The Liberals are known to oppose from the left and govern from the right," said Dana Larsen, a New Democratic Party (NDP) candidate for a West Vancouver riding and head of the party's anti-prohibitionist wing, eNDProhibition. "Now they're in opposition, and they will say that Harper's drug war is wrong. But they passed our current drug law in 1996 despite testimony from nearly everyone it was bad law, and marijuana arrests went up every year the Liberals were in power."
But while the national NDP supports harm reduction and legalizing marijuana as part of its platform, its national leadership has not embraced the issue, Larsen said. "The party is good on policy, and the party spokesperson on drug issues, Libby Davies, is great, but we haven't succeeded yet in getting the party to make ending the drug war a priority."
Davies was traveling on personal business outside the country and unavailable for comment this week.
Canada will have all summer to brood over the coming battles over drugs and crime, but with the Harper government a minority government, it will have to reach out to the Liberals, the NDP, or the Bloc Quebecois to pass anything. None of the opposition parties seems likely to support a "tough on drugs" package like that now envisioned by the Conservatives.
"They don't have the votes to pass this by themselves," said Oscapella. "The fear is what happens if they get reelected with a majority. Then they could walk all over everybody."