Pubdate: Thu, 19 Sep 2002
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2002, The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Rod Mickleburgh


VANCOUVER -- In a strong indictment of Canada's illicit-drug strategy, a 
representative of the federal auditor-general charged yesterday that the 
10-year program lacks leadership, focus and any information about whether 
it works.

"Are we any better off than we were 10 years ago? We don't know," declared 
David Brittian, author of an investigative report for the auditor-general 
that found gaping data holes in the extent of Canada's drug problem and 
what is being done about it.

The federal government spends $450-million a year addressing illicit drugs, 
with 95 per cent of that earmarked for enforcement. Yet there are no 
national figures on convictions and sentencing, Mr. Brittian said.

Although the estimated economic cost of illicit drugs now tops $5-billion a 
year in Canada, just $28-million goes toward federal treatment programs, 
according to the auditor-general.

While many Canadians consider their policies "way ahead of Americans," U.S. 
authorities at least have statistics and know exactly what they are 
spending money on, Mr. Brittian said.

"Leadership on this issue by the federal government is poor; it is lacking. 
It varies between panic and indifference. These days, it is indifference," 
he said.

He was speaking at a high-powered, two-day conference here on the economic 
impact of Vancouver's serious drug problem, considered far and away the 
worst in Canada.

What to do about an area of the Downtown Eastside that is the country's 
poorest postal code has emerged as a surprise issue in Vancouver's coming 
mayoralty race. It has a drug-overdose death rate five times that of any 
other Canadian city and the highest HIV infection rate in the Western world.

The province's chief medical health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, joined many 
conference participants in calling for an end to the status quo, urging 
that the rampant drug use be treated as a health, rather than a 
law-and-order, issue.

Dr. Kendall advocated that safe-injection sites be set up for needle-drug 
users and that medical trials be run to test the effectiveness of supplying 
heroin to hard-core users who have tried repeatedly to quit.

Even minimal harm-reduction programs have already helped on the Downtown 
Eastside, he said, boosting methadone and needle-exchange programs, and 
improving support networks.

Infections with the AIDS virus among drug users fell to 64 last year from 
234 in 1996; overdose deaths have dropped by 56 per cent since 1998, and 
property crime has declined by 36 per cent since 1996, Dr. Kendall said.
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