- Kris Lotlikar
Public officials in the province of British Columbia are taking a second look at their current drug policy. Rises in drug use and crime in the province has convinced Vancouver Police Chief Bruce Chambers and Chief Coroner Larry Campbell to endorse alternatives to the War on Drugs.
"Ladies and gentlemen, what we are doing now no longer works," Chambers said at a press conference last week. "Filling prisons or hospital beds with substance abusers does not make any public policy sense."
B.C spends near $80 million per year on drug enforcement, but with the profits motive amazingly high and the threat of being apprehended much lower it has been largely ineffective. "It's time somebody steps forward and says the war on drugs is lost," stated Campbell. "We cannot even pretend to be winning the war."
The Provincial Medical Officer, Dr. John Millar, released a report on HIV, hepatitis and drug use in B.C which got the backing of both Chambers and Campbell. The plan calls for a major expansion in the use of the heroin-substitute methadone to treat addicts; help to be provided for child car whose parents are victims of addiction; a super-committee to co-ordinate a provincewide approach, and a trial program of heroin maintenance.
The call for offering free legal heroin to addicts with prescription has brought about a barrage of criticism. Benedikt Fischer from the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto says that much of the controversy is based on misinformation. "This is an important step towards effective addiction treatment," Fisher told The Week Online. "Methadone should be the central tool in treatment of opiates but alone it is not sufficient. We must expand the continuum of chooses and option available in order to accomplish prevention goals. He explains that this is not a new idea at all in Canada. The respected Le Dain Commission recommended heroin maintenance trials 25 years ago.
Over 200 residents of B.C have died from overdoses during the first half of this year, which preludes a record 400 deaths by the end of 1998. "It is a signal of society that we have to start doing things differently," coroner Campbell reflects. He pointed that money invested in treatment now will pay large dividends in health care savings. "We can make money by helping these people get better."
Ujjal Dosanjh B.C attorney general expressed concern about this initiative not being put forward by Ottawa. "It has to be part of a national strategy, otherwise you will have people traveling all over from Canada to Vancouver. That's not desirable." Unlike in the United States, in Canada no new law would be needed to start heroin maintenance trials. Approval would only be needed from The Bureau of Dangerous Drugs which would weigh the scientific and ethical evidence.
Mark Townson runs the Portland Hotel in East Vancouver. The hotel provides housing for people who could not get housing any other way, many of who are addicts. Those living there have access to medical care, counseling and methadone. He told The Week Online that the new program, "would save people's lives, make people less miserable, and make the streets safer." Mark has seen people are waking up to the fact that the problems of addiction are medical not criminal. "Five years ago we were a fringe group, now the consciousness has shifted," he said. "These officials coming around is long overdue."