Pubdate: Thu, 26 Jun 2014
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2014 The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Daniel Bear
Page: A11
Note: Daniel Bear is a professor in the school of public safety at 
Sheridan College.


Today, we observe the United Nations International Day Against Drug
Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. In a year that has already seen
everything from the legalization of cannabis in two U.S. states to the
Pope condemning drug legalization, Canadians should take pause and
assess where our drug policy is, and where it should be heading.

In 1998, the UN aimed to eradicate all coca and poppy plants within a
decade, but in 2009, that goal was abandoned in favour of trying to
keep drug use below 5 per cent of the world population. This shift to
what academics have called the "less heroic stance" of the new drug
war has been mirrored elsewhere, as societies realized that
enforcement-based prohibition models simply cannot win.

Portugal and the Czech Republic have decriminalized drugs, Uruguay has
legalized cannabis, Bolivia is licensing coca growers and even the
United States has stepped back on its harshest mandatory minimum
sentencing laws for drugs. The world has come to see the futility of
enforcement, and is embracing support, treatment and community-based
responses to drug problems.

Canada sits on the cusp of embracing this new smarter stance. We have
the first government-sanctioned supervised injection site in North
America operating in B.C. These facilities have been shown to reduce
the spread of disease and reduce the harms associated with heroin use.

More importantly, they put drug users in contact with health-care
professionals who are best suited to improve drug abusers' long-term
outcomes. The promotion of "harm reduction" practices, such as
providing clean needles, is supported by the Canadian Nurses
Association and by the Canadian Medical Association as a "central
pillar in a comprehensive public health approach to disease prevention
and health promotion." Opiate deaths are on the rise in Canada, but
since 2007, the federal government has eliminated support for harm
reduction from the National Anti-Drug Strategy.

Unfortunately, we are still largely mired in a bygone era of drug
policy. Drug offences have continued to rise, even as both the crime
rate and drug use rates fall. The National Anti-Drug Strategy
recommended targeting the most harmful drugs, but cannabis possession
offences have risen by a quarter since 2004, making up more than 50
per cent of all drug offences as of 2012.

The introduction of mandatory minimum sentences, a tactic borrowed
from our southern neighbour, is another sign that we're not yet on the
right path. This policy is trumpeted as a way to combat high-level
drug dealers, but tends to nab only the most low-level and vulnerable
in the drug trade. These individuals are often addicts themselves, and
their risk of acquiring HIV jumps dramatically if they are
incarcerated. This policy has failed miserably in the United States,
and thankfully, Canadian courts have stymied it here for now.

As an American, I've seen the harms of the drug war in my homeland:
More than two million people in prison, billions of dollars wasted,
countless lives lost to violence, disease and overdose. I hate the
idea that my adopted country would go down that failed path.

Canada has the opportunity to lead North America, if not the world,
with drug policies that are based on evidence, that rely on
health-care professionals to treat and support drug abusers, that
de-emphasize the role of police and incarceration to combat drugs, and
that consider alternatives to the prohibitionist model. We mustn't
fail to enact them.
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