Despite formally adopting harm reduction as part of a national drug strategy in 2003, the Canadian government continues to spend the vast majority of its anti-drug funds on unproven and probably counterproductive law enforcement measures, according to a study published Monday. The report was released the same day as a Vancouver Sun poll that found two-thirds of Canadians support treating drug use as a public health issue. Together, the study and the poll are a clear shot across the bow for the Conservative government of Prime Minister Steven Harper, which has promised a tough new national drug strategy with a heavy emphasis on law enforcement.
Produced by the BC Center for Excellence in AIDS, which is partially funded by the British Columbia provincial government, "Canada's 2003 renewed drug strategy -- an evidence-based review," offers a blistering critique of what its authors call the "Americanization" of Canadian drug policy. The study warns that continued reliance on such policies would be a "disaster."
Canada has little to show for all that money spent on drug law enforcement, the study suggested. The report showed Canada's Drug Strategy has failed to stem the numbers of Canadians trying illicit drugs. In 1994, 28.5% of Canadians reported having consumed illicit drugs in their life; by 2004, that figure had jumped to 45%.
The proportion of federal anti-drug spending devoted to law enforcement activities has decreased from 95% in 2001 after the former Liberal government began emphasizing harm reduction and prevention in the face of criticism from the federal auditor-general and other critics. But for the authors of the study released Monday, the portion of the budget devoted to law enforcement remains unacceptably high.
"While the stated goal of Canada's Drug Strategy is to reduce harm, evidence obtained through this analysis indicates that the overwhelming emphasis continues to be on conventional enforcement-based approaches which are costly and often exacerbate, rather than reduce, harms," the report concluded.
"Current federal spending on scientifically proven initiatives which target HIV/AIDS and other serious harms is insignificant compared to the funds devoted to law enforcement," said Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the BC Center for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and one of the report's senior authors. "However, while harm-reduction interventions supported through the drug strategy are being held to an extraordinary standard of proof, those receiving the greatest proportion of funding remain under-evaluated or have already proven to be ineffective."
That comment was a direct shot at the Harper government's reluctance to reauthorize Insite, the Vancouver facility that is North America's only safe injection site for hard drug users. On September 1, when Health Minister Tony Clement gave the facility only a one-year reauthorization (it had asked for three), he publicly questioned research showing the site is effective, save lives, and does not increase drug use or crime rates in the neighborhood. More research was needed, Clement said.
That same day, the Canadian Police Association, representing rank and file officers, publicly condemned harm reduction measures. Association vice-president Tom Stamatakis told the media then that harm reduction was sucking too much money from law enforcement. "This harm-reduction focus has led to unprecedented levels of crime in our city," he said, calling for a new national strategy that focuses on treatment, prevention and enforcement.
But that is precisely what is not needed, the BC Center study found. "The proposed Americanization of the drug strategy towards entrenching a heavy-handed approach that relies on law enforcement will be a disaster," said Dr. Thomas Kerr, a study coauthor. "It is as if the federal government is willing to ignore a mountain of science to pursue an ideological agenda."
"I think it's great that this study has been released," said Donald McPherson, drug policy coordinator for the city of Vancouver. "It clearly shows that while there has been some movement since 2001, there is still not a very balanced drug strategy. This week's polling shows that the public gets it, that people understand this is primarily a health issue," he told Drug War Chronicle. "My hope is that people in the federal government will look at the evidence and eventually realize that evidence-based approaches are preferable to ideologically war on drugs-type approaches. The fact that the public gets it will help the politicians get it."
The study also won applause from New Democratic Party (NDP) Vancouver East Member of Parliament Libby Davies, who in a message to eNDProhibition, the party's anti-prohibitionist wing, said she agreed that "the Conservative government must stop relying on a law-enforcement approach to address problems associated with illegal drug use in Canada. My NDP colleagues and I have long supported a harm reduction, education, and prevention approach to illegal drug use in Canada," she added.
"Prohibitionists have never been called on to justify prohibition, and this report is saying they can't justify these policies," said Eugene Oscapella of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy. "This comes from a very credible organization, and it will help to sway public opinion," he told Drug War Chronicle. "It will resonate with Canadians in general, but I doubt it will make the Conservatives shift gears. These guys are quite willing to overlook the facts in pursuit of their ideological goals."
While Monday's Vancouver Sun poll showed only one-third of Canadians favoring tougher, law enforcement-based approaches, Oscapella noted, that one-third is the Conservative Party's base. "The Conservatives will go with their base on this, but to the extent this report educates the public, it could have an impact on the margins."
Drug War Chronicle contacted the Canadian Department of Justice for comment, but its press people referred us to Health Canada, which has not responded to the query.