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UN scolds Canada's injection havens

National Post (Canada)

Op-Ed: Canada must not follow the U.S. on drug policy

Ottawa, ON
Ottawa Citizen

Feature: New Study Rips Canadian "Tough on Drugs" Policy, Funding

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."
Canadian Parliament, Ottawa (courtesy Library of Parliament)
The study found that of the $368 million the Canadian federal government spent on drug programs in 2004-05, some $271 million, or 73%, went to law enforcement measures such as Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigations, border control, and federal drug prosecutions. Another $51 million (14%) went to treatment programs, and $26 million (7%) was spent on "coordination and research," while prevention and harm reduction programs were on a starvation diet with $10 million (2.6%) each.

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.

Minister drops in at injection site

Vancouver, BC
The Vancouver Sun

It Was the Best of Times: Drug Reform Victories and Advances in 2006

As Drug War Chronicle publishes its last issue of the year -- we will be on vacation next week -- it is time to look back at 2006. Both here at home and abroad, the year saw significant progress on various fronts, from marijuana law reform to harm reduction advances to the rollback of repressive drug laws in Europe and Latin America. Below -- in no particular order -- is our necessarily somewhat arbitrary list of the ten most significant victories and advances for the cause of drug law reform. (We also publish a top ten most significant defeats for drug law reform in 2006 below.)

Marijuana possession stays legal in Alaska. A 1975 Alaska Supreme Court case gave Alaskans the right to possess up to a quarter-pound of marijuana in the privacy of their homes, but in 1991, voters recriminalized possession. A series of court cases this decade reestablished the right to possess marijuana, provoking Gov. Frank Murkowski to spend two years in an ultimately successful battle to get the legislature to re-recriminalize it. But in July, an Alaska Superior Court threw out the new law's provision banning pot possession at home. The court did reduce the amount to one ounce, and the state Supreme Court has yet to weigh in, but given its past rulings, there is little reason to think it will reverse itself.

Local initiatives making marijuana the lowest law enforcement priority win across the board. In the November elections, lowest priority initiatives swept to victory in Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Santa Monica, California, as well as Missoula County, Montana, and Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Earlier this year, West Hollywood adopted a similar ordinance, and last month, San Francisco did the same thing. Look for more initiatives like these next year and in 2008.

Rhode Island becomes the 11th state to approve medical marijuana and the third to do so via the legislative process. In January, legislators overrode a veto by Gov. Donald Carcieri (R) to make the bill law. The bill had passed both houses in 2005, only to be vetoed by Carcieri. The state Senate voted to override in June of 2005, but the House did not act until January.

The Higher Education Act (HEA) drug provision is partially rolled back. In the face of rising opposition to the provision, which bars students with drug convictions -- no matter how trivial -- from receiving federal financial assistance for specified periods, its author, leading congressional drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder, staged a tactical retreat. To blunt the movement for full repeal, led by the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform, Souder amended his own provision so that it now applies only to students who are enrolled and receiving federal financial aid at the time they commit their offenses. Passage of the amended drug provision in February marks one of the only major rollbacks of drug war legislation in years.

New Jersey passes a needle exchange bill. After a 13-year struggle and a rising toll from injection-related HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C infections, the New Jersey legislature last week passed legislation that would establish pilot needle exchange programs in up to six municipalities. Gov. Jon Corzine (D) signed it into law this week. With Delaware and Massachusetts also passing needle access bills this year, every state in the union now either has at least some needle exchange programs operating or allows injection drug users to obtain clean needles without a prescription.

The US Supreme Court upholds the right of American adherents of the Brazil-based church the Union of the Vegetable (UDV) to use a psychedelic tea (ayahuasca) containing a controlled substance in religious ceremonies. Using the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a unanimous court held that the government must show a "compelling government interest" in restricting religious freedom and use "the least restrictive means" of furthering that interest. The February ruling may pave the way for marijuana spiritualists to seek similar redress.

The Vancouver safe injection site, Insite wins a new, if limited, lease on life. The pilot project site, the only one of its kind in North America, was up for renewal after its initial three-year run, and the Conservative government of Prime Minister Steven Harper was ideologically opposed to continuing it, but thanks to a well-orchestrated campaign to show community and global support, the Harper government granted a one-year extension of the program. Some observers have suggested the limited extension should make the "worst of" list instead of the "best of," but keeping the site long enough to survive the demise of the Conservative government (probably this year) has to rank as a victory. So does the publication of research results demonstrating that the site saves lives, reduces overdoses and illness, and gets people into treatment without leading to increased crime or drug use.

The election of Evo Morales brings coca peace to Bolivia. When coca-growers union leader Morales was elected president in the fall of 2004, the country's coca farmers finally had a friend in high office. While previous years had seen tension and violence between cocaleros and the government's repressive apparatus, Morales has worked with the growers to seek voluntary limits on production and, with financial assistance from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, begun a program of research on the uses of coca and the construction of factories to turn it into tea or flour. All is not quiet -- there have been deadly clashes with growers in Las Yungas in recent months -- but the situation is greatly improved from previous years.

Brazil stops imprisoning drug users. Under a new drug law signed by President Luis Inacio "Lula" Da Silva in August, drug users and possessors will not be arrested and jailed, but cited and offered rehabilitation and community service. While the new "treatment not jail" law keeps drug users under the therapeutic thumb of the state, it also keeps them out of prison.

Italy reverses tough marijuana laws. Before its defeat this spring, the government of then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi toughened up Italy's previously relatively sensible drug laws, making people possessing more than five grams of marijuana subject to punishment as drug dealers. The new, left-leaning government of Premier Romano Prodi took and last month raised the limit for marijuana possession without penalty from five grams to an ounce. The Prodi government has also approved the use of marijuana derivatives for pain relief.

Hardened addicts given free heroin in secret NHS trial (The Times, UK)

United States

Harm Reduction: Yet Another Study Finds Vancouver's Safe Injection Site Benefits Users Without Harming Community

Canada's only safe injection site, Insite, located in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, has not led to increased crime or drug use despite the fears of detractors, but has reduced the risk of overdoses and encouraged more users to seek drug treatment, according to the latest study of the publicly-funded harm reduction program. The study, published yesterday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, is only the latest to find that the experimental program is benefiting hard drug users while not harming the community.
Insite brochure
In a one-year period in 2004 and 2005, some 320 clients were referred for drug treatment, the report found. Some 600 clients use the site every day to inject drugs under medical supervision. According to the report, 197 drug overdoses occurred at the site, but none of them were fatal.

Despite a raft of studies demonstrating that Insite is doing what is was supposed to do (and not doing what it wasn't), the Conservative government of Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper remains opposed to further funding the site or allowing the project to expand to other cities. Last summer, in the face of a strong, community-based campaign to support Insite, Health Canada grudgingly agreed to extend funding through the end of 2007. But supporters had sought a three-year extension.

"By all criteria, the Vancouver facility has both saved lives and contributed toward the decreased use of illicit drugs and the reduced spread of HIV infection and other blood-borne infections," Mark Wainberg, the director of the McGill University AIDS Centre in Montreal, wrote in a commentary published alongside the study.

"We've demonstrated numerous benefits associated with the site and we've also ruled out negative impacts," said Dr. Thomas Kerr of the BC Center for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, a lead researcher on the safe injection site. "Drug use patterns didn't get worse. Crime didn't go up. People thought it would encourage drug use and enable drug use when in fact, we found there has been a large entry of people into detox programs."

The Harper government has been wrongheaded in opposing the safe injection site, moving to cut funding when it should be expanding the program, the report said. "The federal governments should draft legislation to allow other such facilities to operate elsewhere in Canada," the researchers concluded.

Injection Site Hasn't Led to Crime, Study Finds

United States
Toronto Globe & Mail

Tories Blocked Needle Sites Despite Internal Poll Results; 56% of Canadians in Favor of More Injection Facilities

Ottawa Citizen

Europe: Portugal Approves Safe Injection Sites, Moves to Start Prison Needle Exchange Programs

In an embrace of harm reduction principles, the Portuguese government has approved the establishment of safe injection sites for drug users and is working to have needle exchange programs in prisons by 2008, Medical News Today reported on August 30. The moves come as part of a package of measures designed to "reduce the consumption of drugs and diminish their harmful social and health effects," the Portuguese government said.

Portugal now follows the lead of Australia, Canada, Germany, and Switzerland, where working safe injection sites are in place. The sites have been shown to help slow the spread of diseases like hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS, reduce overdoses, reduce criminality, help drug users achieve more stable lives, and help some of them connect with treatment and/or counseling services.

While, according to the European Monitoring Center on Drugs and Drug Abuse, Portugal's drug use rates are low by European standards, the country does have an injection drug-using population, mostly around heroin. About one-third of a sample of treatment patients in Portugal reported drug injection as their preferred route of administration.

Portugal decriminalized drug possession in 2000, although drug sales remain illegal. But even if Portugal is not ready to take the giant step of ending drug prohibition, the actions of its government since then show that it continues to move in a progressive direction on drug policy issues.

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