At least one of them resists questioning the motives of their opponents–something I haven’t seen in American political debates for some time.
Last week, it was announced that the Conservative government will soon unveil a new national anti-drug strategy. The plan is said to feature a get-tough approach to illegal drugs, including a crackdown on grow-ops and drug gangs. And while it will also (wisely) include tens of millions for rehabilitation of addicts and for a national drug prevention campaign, it is said to retreat from safe-injection sites and other fashionable “harm-reduction” strategies introduced by the previous Liberal government.
To which we say: Good. This editorial column has long urged a softening of drug policy on marijuana and other non-addictive recreational substances. But heroin and similarly addictive drugs are a different story. Moreover, safe injection sites don’t work. And they send the wrong message, too, promoting disrespect for the rule of law by having government facilitating the consumption of illegal substances.
Safe-injection sites (SIS)– typically inner-city facilities where addicts may go to shoot up with clean needles under the watchful eye of medical specialists –are often said to work wonders. Benefits claimed on behalf of Insite, Canada’s one and only SIS in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside since 2003, include reduced needle sharing, reduced spread of deadly diseases such as HIV and hepatitis, fewer needles discarded in surrounding neighbourhoods and fewer addicts overdosing in alleys. Lives have been saved, advocates claim, the “well-being of drug users improved,” and all without increased street dealing around Insite.
Too bad most of the proof to back these positive claims come from SIS proponents or the academics who devise harm-reduction theories. Police here, and in Europe (where they have lots of experience with SISs) tell a very different tale.
When Insite applied to have its three-year licence renewed last fall, the RCMP told Health Canada it had “concerns regarding any initiative that lowers the perceived risks associated with drug use. There is considerable evidence to show that, when the perceived risks associated to drug use decreases, there is a corresponding increase in number of people using drugs.”
That has certainly been the case in Europe. Currently there are more than three dozen major European cities on record against SISs. Most have had such facilities and closed them because they found that drug problems increased, not decreased.
After an injection site was opened in Rotterdam in the early 1990s, the municipal council reported a doubling of the number of 15- to 19-year-olds addicted to heroine or cocaine. Over the 1990s, the Dutch Criminal Intelligence Service reported a 25% increase in drug-related gun murders and robberies in neighbourhoods housing one of that country’s 50 official methadone clinics or addict shelters. Zurich closed its infamous needle park in 1992, after the police and citizenry became fed up with public urination and defecation, prostitution, open sex, panhandling, drug peddling, loud fights and violent crimes.
But as much as we admire the good intentions behind SISs, drug consumption is the wrong business for government to be in. A government that funds safe havens for injecting illegal drugs on one hand will quickly find it is working against its efforts to reduce drug dealing on the other.
Reports that the Harper government is preparing to announce changes to Canada’s outdated 20-year-old national strategy on illicit drug use should be reason for optimism.
Instead, there are signs — such as the Conservative distaste for safe-injection sites that are a key component of the “harm-reduction strategy” — that Ottawa is tilting toward a more aggressive, U.S.-style war on drugs. If that is the case, it would be an unfortunate mistake with predictable and very disappointing outcomes.
While Washington from time to time trumpets bravely that it has scored a victory in the war on drugs, by all empirical measures it has been an abject failure.
Consider the record south of the border:
– Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent. This year alone in the U.S., federal and state government have spent nearly $20.5 billion directly on counter-drug measures.
– There are nearly two million Americans in prison, about one-third of whom are locked up on charges for possession or low-level trafficking, costing tens of billions of dollars.
– Despite nearly 30 years of focused domestic and international measures, however, drugs are more available than they have ever been, largely because it is such a wildly profitable criminal industry. Virtually anyone who wants to buy drugs can, and it’s easier than ever.
But what are the alternatives? This is a reasonable question. Just because the state can’t beat the drug cartels doesn’t mean it should join them.
One of the driving forces behind the U.S. war on drugs, especially under the Republican party, is Christianity. The religious right has placed “saving” people from the scourge of drugs as an important American value and tantamount to saving souls. It is one reason that successive administrations have continued to throw increasing resources at a fruitless war. The message, in essence, that the small number of those rescued from the grip of drugs justifies the billions used in the war.