Pubdate: Sat,  1 Sep 2001
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2001, The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Andre Picard
Bookmark: (Heroin)


A report endorsed by federal Health Minister Allan Rock says Canada's 
drug laws should be reviewed because they contribute to the epidemic 
spread of HIV-AIDS and hepatitis C among injection-drug users.

The Health Canada report says that injection-drug use should be 
considered a health problem, not a law-and-order issue, an approach 
it says could mean prescribing heroin to addicts rather than 
prosecuting them. It was posted without fanfare on the department's 
Web site yesterday, the day before a long weekend, and attracted 
little immediate attention in Ottawa.

"Injection-drug use is first and foremost a health issue," Mr. Rock 
writes in the report's introduction. "Involving all Canadians in a 
just and compassionate response means that we must dig deep in our 
search for solutions and not stop until we find ones that work."

By publishing the report, Mr. Rock, sometimes mentioned as a possible 
future prime minister, stepped deeper into a war zone between those 
who favour strict drug enforcement and those who call the current law 
outdated. It calls for sentences of up to seven years for possession 
of heroin and life for possession for purposes of trafficking.

The report drew tentative praise from AIDS activists yesterday and 
fire from Canadian Alliance MP Randy White, vice-chairman of a 
parliamentary committee on illegal drugs. He said he believes the 
Health Minister plans to legalize hard drugs. Mr. White predicted 
that public outrage will drive the Liberals from office if that 

If Mr. Rock does moves toward legalization, police groups may be 
among the hardest to persuade. By formal policy, the Canadian 
Association of Chiefs of Police says it "stands firm in opposing any 
type of legalization of any and all current illicit drugs in Canada."

According to the Health Canada report, drug addicts should be treated 
as "respected members of society who need and deserve support and 
assistance, not as criminals who should be isolated from each other."

It also says that a "close examination" of Canada's drug laws is 
required and that there is a "need to reduce barriers" for people who 
want to obtain drugs and treatment for addictions. That means 
providing safe needles, supporting methadone programs and improving 
co-operation between health and law-enforcement agencies to ensure 
drug users have better access to health and social services.

AIDS activists praised the report for its frankness but stressed that 
the policies that are suggested should be implemented quickly.

"Action, not more words, is needed," said Ralf Jurgens, executive 
director of the Montreal-based Canadian HIV-AIDS Legal Network.

Mr. Jurgens was one of the authors of a government-funded report by 
his group titled Injection Drug Use and HIV-AIDS: Legal and Ethical 
Issues. The report released yesterday was Health Canada's response to 

"Canada's drug laws are contributing to the harm associated with 
injection-drug use," he said. "There is a need for changes to drug 
policy in Canada. Health Canada's response acknowledges this, but it 
tiptoes around this fundamental issue rather than dealing with it in 
a meaningful way."

The 1999 report warned that Canada was in the midst of a 
public-health crisis as rates of HIV infection and hepatitis soared 
among injection-drug users, and said that the criminalization of drug 
use has done more harm than it has prevented.

It called for such steps as prescribing heroin to addicts, making 
safe needles widely available, extending that policy to prisons, and 
abandoning legal measures in favour of a harm-reduction approach. 
Health Canada's response acknowledges the breadth of the problem, 
saying that as many as 125,000 Canadians inject drugs and there are 
explosive epidemics among drug users caused largely by sharing 
needles. (In Vancouver, almost 23 per cent of injection-drug users 
are infected with HIV, up from 4 per cent only five years ago; in 
Montreal the rate has risen to 20 per cent from 5 per cent.)

Health Canada says that treating people who contract infectious 
diseases through injection-drug use costs the health system almost 
$6-billion a year, and that money would be better spent on prevention.

More than one-third of new cases of HIV or AIDS in Canada are among 
injection-drug users. The department predicts that the care and 
treatment of injection-drug users who contract HIV will cost 
$14.7-billion over the next five years and that the medical treatment 
of those who contract hepatitis C will exceed that amount.

Michael Linhart, a former injection-drug user who contracted HIV 
while sharing needles, said his story emphasizes the need for 
legislators and policy makers to take a pragmatic approach.

"The government wouldn't pay $1 to give me a safe needle and now 
they're paying $5,000 a month for my AIDS drugs," he said in an 

Providing safe injection sites and distributing safe needles in 
prisons should be a priority, he said. Safe injection sites where 
addicts are provided with clean needles and sometimes prescriptions 
of heroin have been successful in reducing HIV and hepatitis-C 
transmission rates in the Netherlands and Germany.

Mr. Linhart, who read the report yesterday, said he was pleased with 
it but wondered if the government will implement the policies 

"My first impression was: 'Oh my God, they've finally realized that 
addiction is a health issue, not a crime.' The Health Minister is 
saying all the right things, but what I want to know is: Will the 
Solicitor-General buy in?"

Reached last night, the Alliance's Mr. White asserted that Mr. Rock 
is pursuing "his own agenda or maybe even a cabinet agenda for 
legalizing drugs in Canada, but that's not going to work.

"I think the Liberals are severely misjudging the Canadian public if 
they think they're going to be the first country in our part of the 
world to legalize drugs. . . . I can assure them that's not the 
agenda of the people in this country, and I can assure them of 
something else: Should they make a move toward the legalization of 
drugs in Canada that government will fall."

Maximum penalties are almost never imposed today for drug 
trafficking, he said. "The courts treat the issue very lightly."

Even so, the MP did not entirely disagree with Health Canada. "I 
would say enforcement is the least of it," he said. "What's really 
lacking is rehabilitation, which is abysmal, and intervention, which 
includes education and treatment, and then a consistent enforcement 
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