Study casts doubts over Tory strategy on illicit drug use
The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, March 17, 2011 6:55AM EDT
OTTAWA - It's not clear the Conservatives are getting a whole lot of bang for all the bucks thrown at the illicit drug problem, a new report says.
A consultant hired by the Justice Department couldn't tell whether the Tory drugs strategy is working.
That casts doubt over the value of a multimillion-dollar suite of anti-drug programs, which has formed part of the Tories' tough-on-crime message.
The true cost of various legislation to crack down on crime is at the heart of hearings this week into whether the Harper government is in contempt of Parliament.
The government had refused a request from the Commons finance committee for detailed cost estimates for all crime bills on the grounds they are cabinet confidences. The opposition disagreed.
On Wednesday, the Conservatives capitulated and released reams of documents, which they claim are detailed cost estimates of their law-and-order agenda.
But that paperwork only costs out the programs. Last year, the government wanted to quantify them.
So Justice hired consultant Goss Gilroy Inc., to weigh the costs and outcomes of the national anti-drug strategy.
The strategy consists of prevention and enforcement programs run by several departments, including Health Canada, the RCMP, Foreign Affairs and the Canada Border Services Agency.
Part of the strategy is a TV ad that shows a teen girl in her bedroom singing "One, two, kicked out of school, three, four, snort some more," in a dull voice as she snips off a fistful of her own hair and scratches needle marks into her forearms.
But whether such initiatives really work is another question.
The firm's report, dated last April and obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, couldn't tell if the TV spot and other programs had any impact.
"In the case of the strategy, many programs do not have the means to demonstrate the incremental impact of their activities," the document says.
"Many programs report output information, such as number of partners and number of program participants ... but the validity of the information remains questionable from an impact measurement perspective."
Part of the problem, the study found, is that there isn't much followup on the programs. So, in many cases, it isn't known what became of people who took part in the programs.
"The most important corrective measure would be to increase the level of effort to track participants to assess the outcomes of prevention and treatment projects," the study says.
"Without this information, the effectiveness of these programs cannot be assessed with a level of precision that would be expected from a cost-effectiveness or cost-benefit analysis."
The consultant declined comment Wednesday.
Similar initiatives have failed elsewhere. A University of Pennsylvania study of more than 30 public-service announcements telling kids to avoid drugs found they weren't all that effective.
The Canadian consultant's findings came as no surprise to one public-health expert.
"We know the strategies that have been employed by the federal government have proven ineffective elsewhere," said Dr. Evan Wood, a physician who teaches at the University of British Columbia and works at the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV-AIDS.
"So the fact that a consultant is now showing that it hasn't been effective is certainly no surprise, and the fact that there's information gaps also isn't a surprise, because information would be harmful to the government at this point."
The Justice Department called the study a preliminary look at what information was available.
"The purpose of the study was to examine the feasibility of developing an approach to assess the cost-effectiveness of the strategy taking into consideration available data," spokeswoman Carole Saindon said in an email.
"The report helped the department of Justice identify what sources of information are available and what new sources of data should be collected. The results of this feasibility study have been incorporated into the planning process of the actual evaluation."
Justice Minister Rob Nicholson's office wasn't immediately available for comment.