More criticism of Canadian drug policy plan

First off, I am not at all in favor a the war on drugs and I’m skeptical of this new plan. (In my limited understanding, it emphasizes criminalization.) However, I believe that these comments from Stephen Harper make a lot of sense:

Harper unveiled a $63.8-million, two-year drug strategy in Winnipeg Thursday, saying harm reduction is not a “distinct pillar” of the Conservative strategy.

Vancouver’s safe injection site is “a second-best strategy at best,” he said, “because if you remain a drug addict, I don’t care how much harm you reduce, you’re going to have a short and miserable life.”

Harper said Thursday: “I remain a skeptic that you can tell people we won’t stop the drug trade, we won’t get you off drugs, we won’t even send messages to discourage drug use, but somehow we will keep you addicted and yet reduce the harm just the same.”

These comments have been met with accusations of ignorance:

Mark Townsend, director of the Portland Hotel Society in Vancouver, said Harper doesn’t understand the scourge of drug addiction.

“It’s depressing to see his [Harper’s] lack of leadership on that and now he is out there trying to find a new study that will say the world is flat,” Townsend said.

A columnist for the Victoria Times-Colonist rails against the plan:

The problems of ideology-based governance clearly must be more obvious from afar. Otherwise, Canadians wouldn’t be able to bear the hypocrisy of railing against oppressive and backward regimes elsewhere in the world while committing ourselves anew to the folly of a war on drugs.

The real tragedy is that the misuse of drugs continues to cost us $40 billion a year in Canada in direct and indirect costs, and that’s not even counting all the billions we’ve thrown away on misguided and ideologically driven attempts to do something about that.

Here’s the thing: Health issues can’t be resolved through ideology.

So why do we continue to let our elected politicians ignore the science when it comes to drug issues? Why should anybody’s poorly informed position around drug use be the lens that we apply when trying to address complex health and social problems that are far too important to be left to political whim?

I respect the right of Stephen Harper and his MPs to believe that using illicit drugs is bad. It’s a free country and they’re welcome to their opinions, and never mind that alcohol is actually Canada’s most dangerous and readily available drug by a long shot. (The social costs of alcohol use in Canada are more than double that of all illicit drugs combined and health-related costs are three times higher.)

But why would we want to base something as important as our national drug strategy on opinion and belief?

We’ve got six decades worth of scientific studies underlining the importance of an informed, health-based approach in reducing the harm and societal costs of drug use. Yet we’re still letting vital public policy be decided by people who would rather maintain their personal fictions than take steps to fix the problems.

This complete rejection of the role of values in policy decisions can’t be serious. What about torture? Is the only acceptable argument against torture and argument that it doesn’t work? I don’t know anything about this writer, but I suspect she believes it is wrong and would oppose any pro-torture policy on moral grounds–even if torture was scientifically proven to be effective.

Granted, there’s a long distance between torture and drug policy. The point is that we base policy decisions on values and morals all the time, even in health care. Are Canada’s universal health care policies and the U.S. SCHIP programs based in pragmatism? They’re based on moral
convictions about providing access to health care. Furthermore, the argument that harm reduction activism is value-free and rooted only in science is folly. HR arguments are consistently value-laden. For example, common themes include:

  • Drug use is not bad
  • Self-determination and personal liberty trump competing concerns
  • Drug experimentation is a normal developmental task for adolescents

Would it be so difficult to build a dialog on drug policy around values? For example:

  • Drug use is bad for addicts
  • Recovery is the ideal outcome and should never be abandoned as a goal
  • No one should be incarcerated for simple personal possession or use
  • If an addict refuses recovery, we should still provide assistance with basic needs

How much common ground could be developed? What policy initiatives might arise?

One other truth that activists on both sides need to accept is that any policy that does not enjoy broad and deep public support will always be in peril. The general public will never embrace a policy focused on incarceration or a policy focused on needle exchanges, safe injection centers and drug maintenance programs.

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