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Feature: Battle Royal Looms as Canadian Government Set to Unveil Tough Anti-Drug Strategy

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #488)
Politics & Advocacy

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
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."

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

to get the ONDCP's stamp of approval on their anti-drug legislation before it even got to Parliament? It would seem pretty much a given that Mr. Harper didn't even have to have his party cravenly dispatch any MP's to kiss the ONDCP ring this time; he heard the dog whistle clear up in Ottawa. And like a good boy, he's sitting, barking, rolling over and p*****g himself on command, so happy to be of use. And he wants to be taken seriously as the head of state of a sovereign nation? Does the term 'Finlandization' ring any bells? Jeez...

Fri, 06/01/2007 - 9:51am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Just when everyone thought Canada had a good approach to cannabis and the coming reform movement, they pull a stunt like this. Appears as if D.C has more pull than anyone thought on the sovereignity of our sister country. What a shame that would be too. Oh well, as I've always said " you can't have nothing". Let's hope the Canadians buck this new bunch of hooey before it gets out of hand. God knows we're trying the best we can down here.

Fri, 06/01/2007 - 10:47pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

When the Mexican Congress passed a Bill LEGALIZING small amounts of illegal drugs and substances, President Vicente Fox indicated he would sign the Bill. Until US President George Bush made a telephone call to the Mexican President. El Presidente Fox made a quick 180 degree turn and vetoed the legalization Bill. The Mexican Congress could have overidden the veto by passing the Bill again. However, the Mexican Congress declined to do so. So much for Mexican sovreignity. Steven Harper has decided to embrace the long proven failure of US drug strategies over the needs of Canadian citizens and Canadian sovreignity. Steven Harper has served his purpose in ridding Canadians of Paul Martin's scandal plagued government. Now the time has come to retire Steve Harper in a NEWER minority government.

Sat, 06/02/2007 - 4:28am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

After thirty years and tens of billions of dollars waging "war" on drugs in the U.S. with "enforcement-emphasized" approaches, there has not been one inch of progress. Yet in each of those years, up to and including this year, the U.S. public was told "progress was being made."

And you have to wonder, in what other form of endeavor could you fail for thirty years and still be allowed to keep your job, merely by placating your employer every so often with false assurances that despite how bad things look, progress is being made?

U.S. prisons are literally running out of places to warehouse inmates and the term "warehouse" is not used casually. According to the California Department Of Corrections and "Rehabilitation" more than 57 percent of state inmates return to prison within three years of release. So if recidivism rates are any indicator of the amount or quality of "rehabilitation" someone receives while incarcerated, ostensibly it's zero.

So we know that "success leaves footprints," and one of the fastest ways to succeed is to find someone else who has succeeded and emulate them. And here in Canada, we've decided to emulate the U.S. approach to drugs, and use them as our moral compass.

And my question is - where are the "footprints" of success that we're following? What aspects of the "war on drugs" in the U.S. have been such a resounding success that we feel compelled to emulate it in Canada? In fact, let's make it easy - just give me one. Give me one single success story the resulted from an "enforcement-emphasized" approach to the drug problem.

There are only two reasons that someone will be in favor of "enforcement-emphasized" strategies. Either they're livelihood depends on it, or they are completely removed from the problem and the realities of substance abuse and addiction. And as such, they're not even minimally qualified to be making policy decisions about it.

Show me a "lock'em up and throw away the key" type of person and I'll show you someone who still clings to the draconian belief that addiction is about character weakness and poor moral fiber.

Anyway, the challenge is out there for all my fellow Canadians. Just offer up one aspect of the U.S. enforcement-emphasized approach to the drug problem that's been so successful, it make sense that we would be adopting the same policy in Canada. Just one.

Mon, 06/04/2007 - 1:23am Permalink
dguard (not verified)

RE: The above "U.S. prisons are literally running out of places to warehouse inmates and the term "warehouse" is not used casually."

So true -- just look at this article in today's Ottawa Citizen

A few highlights:

"Every day in California, more than 170,000 inmates are crammed into state prisons designed to hold 110,000. An estimated 16,000 prisoners sleep on cots in hallways and gymnasiums."

"By 2005, the conditions had grown so appalling that a federal judge, bemoaning the "outright depravity" that has been linked to dozens of preventable deaths in state prisons, ordered a receiver to take over California's $1-billion-a-year prison health care system."

"But the situation remains dire. Last year, overcrowding forced black and Latino gang members into close quarters at the Los Angeles county jail, sparking two weeks of riots."

"Facing a possible federal takeover of the entire system, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last October declared a state of emergency in prisons."

- David

Mon, 06/04/2007 - 2:26pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

links for MPs and MLAs please

Tue, 02/05/2008 - 12:50am Permalink

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