Pubdate: Mon, 29 Apr 2002
Source: National Post (Canada)
Copyright: 2002 Southam Inc.
Author:  Mark Hume


Vancouverites Hotly Polarized Over Drug Conference, And Whether City Should 
Help Users Get Their Fix

Bob Bentall, whose family-owned business has assets of $2-billion, is 
spending a lot of time these days thinking about drugs: crack,cocaine and 

I'm trying to understand. It's about my education as much as anything," 
says Mr.Bentall, sitting in his office in one of the cluster of five towers 
in downtown Vancouver that carry the Bentall name.

This week Mr. Bentall, his wife, Lynda, and two police officers will host 
an international conference that targets the illicit drug problem, but 
their conference has itself become the focus of protests.

Mr. Bentall has set off an angry debate that has been smouldering for years 
in Vancouver:  whether to pursue the war on drugs or adopt a "harm 
reduction" approach that would see the government set up and run clinics 
where addicts can go to inject drugs safely.

Tensions over the issue are running high in Vancouver.  The IDEAS 
conference will be greeted by noisy protest rallies, a march through the 
streets and a marijuana smoke-in where people will be encouraged to sample 
25 different brands of "B.C.  bud."

One church in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside recently opened a model 
"safe-shooting" site, complete with everything except drugs, to show the 
public what it would look like.

But no real clinics have yet opened in Canada and the debate over the drug 
injection sites is far from over.  The issue has split politicians at City 
Hall and has pitted merchants against advocates for harm reduction. Those 
supporting safe injection sites include reformed addicts, medical experts, 
and high-ranking politicians.

Dr. Perry Kendall, the provincial health officer, recently told city 
council he favours safe injection sites.  "I think it's the best chance 
that the city has to deal with the injection drug use and substance use 
problem," he said as council considered a motion proposing support for 
supervised drug use facilities.

At the same meeting, Sue Bennett, a member of the Gastown Community Safety 
Society, pleaded with council not to encourage more drug use in the area.

"This is just another hook to go in the community. The community needs 
relief from addicts," she said.

Coincidentally, council will conclude its debate this week, while the IDEAS 
conference is underway across town.

Mr. Bentall said he has an open mind on the issue of drug treatment and the 
conference is meant to promote discussion and understanding, not advance a 
single point of view.

"Speaking personally," he adds, "I, law enforcement and 
treatment for the addicted.  But I am against harm reduction and helping 
people pump more poison into their system."

He says the growing clamour for harm reduction has drowned out debate, 
which he says leaves him deeply concerned. "We need to hear the other 
side...there needs to be a healthy debate."

In Vancouver, over the past few years, the talk has increasingly been about 
harm reduction, an idea that has been endorsed by Phiilip Owen, the Mayor, 
although it has been recently questioned by Jennifer Clarke, the leading 
contender for his job.

Mr. Bentall thinks harm reduction is the signal for a slide into 
permissiveness.  Conference material reflects that view, with a list of 
questions that suggest its participants will hear a harder line on drugs 
than is currently popular.

"Why are there so many illegal drugs available in Canada?" the organizers 
ask in conference material.  "Why can't we stop drug pushers and pot 
growers? Why do most of our treatment programs not work?" How can we stoop 
the drug situation from becoming hopeless?"

Who is influencing Canada's decisions towards permissiveness?

Speakers include Calvina Fay, Executive Director of Drug Free America 
Foundation, Dr. Ernst Aeschbach, of Swiss Physicians Against Drugs, and 
Christy McCampbell, Chief of California's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement.

"By sharing resources, knowledge and experience, the aim of IDEAS 2002 is 
to educate as many Canadians as possible about the threat of permissive 
drug laws. The goal is to bring an end to tolerance for substance abuse 
that enslaves so many of our fellow citizens and profits only traffickers, 
criminals and terrorist," says conference brochure.

Such provocative language has not escaped the notice of the B.C. Marijuana 
Party, a group that has long called for an official end to the war on drugs 
and adoption of more lenient policies, including the legalization of 
marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and other substances.

The Marijuana Party, which attempted to influence the political agenda by 
running candidates in the last provincial election, will hold protest 
rallies outside the convention hall.  Protesters will be encouraged to 
"Just say no to bad IDEAS."

Marc Emery, the party president, will declare his candidacy in the next 
fall's mayoralty race on the day the conference opens. He thinks the 
Bentall's are mean-spirited, backwards and part of the "propaganda machine" 
of Drug Free America Inc. "I'm surprised the prohibitionists even need a 
conference, given the way our laws are being so strictly enforced," he said.

Mr. Emery said the conference is aimed at promoting the Swedish model, 
where drug users get an average sentence of 20 months, as compared to five 
months in Canada. "They want 20 months, I want zero months," he said.

"I believe in legalizing all these drugs. We should be delivering the 
heroin to [addicts]. The best safe injection site is in their own 
home...We're supporting this fabulous drug underworld by making it illegal."

Mr. Emery said the conference is being staged by "a petty, sadistic group" 
that wants to punish drug users, instead of helping them. Mr. Bentall has 
heard the criticism, but says it will not deter him.  The issue, he said, 
is too important not to be talked about.

The idea for the symposium came about when he and his wife sat at lunch one 
day with Al Arsenault and Toby Hinton, two Vancouver police officers who 
walk the beat in the Downtown Eastside.

Constables Arsenault and Hinton are minor celebrities because of the 
efforts they have made over the years to educate the public about drugs in 
an urban area with one of the worst substance abuse problems in the world.

The Bentalls turned to them because of their growing personal worries about 
the spread of drugs in society.

The Bentalls have for 12 years run a unique program in the Eastside, the 
Ailanthus Achievement Centre for Inner-City Youth, which takes 
under-privileged kids and tries to guide them away from endemic poverty 
toward successful lives. The goal for participants is college or university 

The program, funded and run by the Bentalls, provides children with food, 
clothing, tutorial help and financial assistance while involving them in 
performing arts programs meant to build self-esteem.  The children they 
work with often come from families where drug abuse is a crippling problem, 
and the Ailanthus Centre is located in an area where drug use is common.

Mr. Bentall said he and his wife have witnessed first-hand the damage done 
by drugs - and they have lost faith in the effectiveness of existing 

"We have one student whose father was in and out of drug treatment programs 
17 times," Mr. Bentall said.  "That's a huge burden for that child, and 
it's got to tell you something is wrong with the treatment program. I mean 
17 times?"

Across the street from Ailanthus Centre is the Compassion Club, an 
operation that gives out marijuana for medicinal purposes. A few doors up 
is a methadone clinic.  Across the street is a park where heroin users 
shoot up, often leaving their needles where children play.

Mr. Bentall said it is a routine job, at the Ailanthus Centre, to clean up 
vomit left in the doorways by drug addicts.

He said he and his wife had lunch with the two Vancouver officers in the 
hope they could learn something from them.   "we were talking about the 
drug problems ... and somebody said, "Well, why don't we do something about 
it?", he said.

"This is a one-time deal," he said, "This isn't something we're going to 
put on all the time.  But I hope it helps shift the debate and the 
direction this country is going.

"Drug abuse is a very serious problem in Canada today.  It just saps the 
vitality of our nation.  And if we continue the way we're going, in 20 
years time we'll be living in gated communities."

Mr. Emery scoffs at the Bentalls, and predicts their conference, which 
starts Wednesday, will change nothing.

"After that conference is finished there's a hydroponics conference in 
there, in the same hotel," Mr. Emery said happily. "That's all about 
marijuana grow ops...and it will be attended by thousands."
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart