Ottawa's drug policy under fire from health providers
Published Wednesday, March 28, 2012 9:13PM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 7:52AM EDT
Prominent public health figures are speaking out against the way Ottawa approaches drug policy, asserting that the government is putting ideology over hard facts.
An analysis published Wednesday in the journal Open Medicine calls on the federal government to shift the focus of its drug strategy from law enforcement to health and harm reduction.
Among the study's authors are the chief medical health officers for British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia, who critique Ottawa's anti-drug legislation, which includes mandatory minimum prison sentences for minor drug law offences.
"Besides the fact that drug law enforcement is costly and ineffective, over-reliance on this approach has also resulted in a range of unintended consequences," reads an excerpt from the six-page report.
The authors note that heavy law enforcement has been known to drive drug users away from community health services and push them into settings where there's an increased risk of contracting HIV, tuberculosis and other diseases.
Dr. Perry Kendall, chief medical health officer for B.C., said the report is meant to offer suggestions on how to use a more evidence-based approach toward establishing a stronger drug policy.
"When we look at illicit drugs, we find that the predominant approach, where most of the money is spent, is spent on the criminalization and prohibition approach," Kendall told CTV British Columbia.
"And there's been a growing body of evidence from countries around the world that this doesn't work as well as it might, and it has a lot of unintended side effects, which create costs on individuals and on communities and on societies."
Kendall said evidence shows that in many jurisdictions, such an approach correlates with ongoing marginalization and victimization among drug users, the spread of infectious disease and drug overdose deaths.
It's a critique that comes as the Urban Public Health Network, a group representing public health officers in Canada's 18 largest municipalities, endorses a campaign that urges governments to pay attention to scientific evidence when drafting drug policy.
Supporters of the Vienna Declaration believe that the so-called "war on drugs" in countries around the world is ineffective, wastes billions in tax dollars and actually exacerbates problems such as organized crime, violence and HIV outbreaks.
According to the Declaration, in the last several decades, worldwide watchdogs have noticed a trend of "falling drug prices and increasing drug purity -- despite massive investments in drug law enforcement."
Eugene Oscapella, co-founder of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy, says that governments are wasting billions of dollars on an ineffective "war on drugs."
"The legal status of the drug has very little to do with why people use them," he told CTV News Channel on Wednesday.
Speaking from Ottawa, he quoted studies showing that most of those who abstain from using marijuana, for instance, do so because they're concerned with potential health effects rather than legal ramifications.
By taking a severe approach to drug policy, Oscapella asserts that governments are indirectly driving those in need of help underground.
"The criminal law creates this fantastically lucrative black market that no amount of policing, no amount of prisons, no amount of law enforcement, no amount of military effort is going to be able to stop," he said.
The Open Medicine analysis is critical of drug prohibition and, like the Declaration, says the government needs to rethink its approach to drug policy.
Considering 50 per cent of Canadians already support the legalization of cannabis, according to a recent Angus Reid poll, the authors surmise that drug policy reform may not be a tough sell for the government.
The general idea of the critique is that Canada should approach drug addiction as a health problem, rather than an issue that needs to be solved by the correctional system.
For instance, despite fears that drug-use might increase without a hard-line approach, the analysis notes that there's no evidence to support this position. According to a recent study from the World Health Organization, "countries with stringent user-level illegal drug policies did not have lower levels of use than countries with liberal ones."
Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae cited the Open Medicine report during question period in the House of Commons Wednesday. He pointed out that the last time prohibition was in effect, against alcohol back in the 1930s, it "proved to be a disastrous and expensive failure."
"I'd like to ask why the Conservatives still don't have a good policy on addiction, don't have a good policy on mental health, and why they have a failed policy and why they only have a jail policy," Rae said.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird replied that the government's priority is to get tough on drug dealers.
"One of the things we won't do is try to legalize marijuana," Baird said. "We think that is not in the best interest of middle class families across this country."
Instead of the tough-on-crime, tough-on-drugs approach, the authors encourage Ottawa to consider "harm reduction strategies" such as needle exchange programs and methadone maintenance therapy, a treatment proven effective for those who struggle with heroin addiction.
The three medical officers wrote the analysis with Dr. Evan Wood, of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, which had a hand in the creation of the Vienna Declaration.