Pubdate: Thu, 09 Apr 2015
Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)
Copyright: 2015 Postmedia Network Inc.
Author: Mark Kennedy
Page: A9


Harper maintains hard line despite other nations' changes in policy,

Prime Minister Stephen Harper may find himself at odds with some other
western-hemisphere leaders who want to relax drug laws for offences
such as marijuana use and provide "alternatives" to jail time.

Harper flies to Panama Friday for the two-day Summit of the Americas,
where more than 30 leaders from the Organization of American States
will gather.

In recent years, there has been a growing movement among some of those
nations - particularly those in South America devastated by violence
from drug cartels - to find new ways to tackle the drug problem.

At the previous summit, in Colombia in 2012, Harper resisted calls to
consider decriminalization of some drugs.

On Wednesday, the prime minister's spokesman indicated Harper hasn't
changed his mind.

"We are opposed to decriminalization because dangerous and addictive
drugs tear families apart, promote criminal behaviour and destroy
lives," Rob Nicol, the prime minister's director of communications,
said in a written statement.

He said the Conservative government's "comprehensive strategy" to
fight drug use in Canada is "working " - pointing to a 30-per-cent
reduction in self-reported marijuana use by youths since 2008.

Nicol said Canada has made a solid contribution to combating drug
trafficking in the Americas, noting that since 2009 the country has
invested $28 million to Caribbean security programs.

But the OAS is seized with the issue. It says there is "consensus" on
four points: the drug problem needs to be attacked from a "public
health perspective"; reforms must be enacted to "provide alternatives
to incarceration"; organized crime is a "major player" in the problem;
and it's essential to strengthen judicial and law-and-order
institutions in some countries.

OAS secretary general Jose Miguel Insulza says the "war on drugs"
hasn't worked and that it is time to have a debate about solutions
"without fear of breaking taboos."

In a recent report, he urged OAS countries to work collectively and
"review the severity of sentences" for drug users.

"The quest for alternatives to incarceration for drug-dependent
offenders or for individuals who commit minor offences in the drug
trafficking chain is another pressing need today," he wrote.

"Clearly, it takes time to change laws and policies and we never
expected change overnight. Forty years of the 'war on drugs' have
spawned a host of provisions, entrenched bureaucracies, and
convictions that do not just go away. For that reason, it is
unreasonable to expect that the changes needed will come about at the
same time, in all countries, and promptly."

With a federal election set for Oct. 19, Harper is aware that drug
policy will be an issue on the campaign trail.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau will advocate legalizing marijuana
through a regulated system - a move the party says would take pot out
of the hands of organized crime and make it harder for young people to

But federal Conservatives say the change would lead to more drug use
by Canadians, including youth.

However, the government has been considering a plan to let police
issue tickets to people caught with small amounts of marijuana,
instead of laying criminal charges. The Conservatives say that if they
move ahead with these changes it would not decriminalize or legalize
marijuana possession in Canada, but rather give police officers a new
tool to enforce drug laws.

Meanwhile, on a related front, the Conservative-dominated House of
Commons passed a bill last month that makes it difficult to open safe
injection sites for drug users.

The bill was in response to the Supreme Court decision in 2011 that
upheld the existence of Vancouver's Insite drug clinic because it
delivered health benefits without substantial negative effects on the

The OAS spent the past three years conducting extensive research on
the drug issue. It released a 2013 report suggesting a blueprint for
debate among OAS nations.

"National, hemispheric, and international drug policies have gradually
come to view addiction as a chronic and recurrent illness requiring a
health-oriented approach involving a wide range of interventions," the
report said.

"The fundamental change in perspective has been to shift from viewing
drug users as criminals or accomplices of drug-traffickers to seeing
them as victims and chronic addicts."

The report also stressed that "decriminalization" of drug use needs to
be "considered as a core element" of any strategy.

"An addict is a chronically sick person who should not be punished for
his or her dependence, but rather treated appropriately. If it proves
impossible to adopt such a radical shift in treatment from one day to
another, a start should at least be made with transitional methods,
such as drug courts, substantial reductions in penalties, and

"Incarceration runs counter to this approach and should only be used
when an addict's life is in danger or when his or her behaviour
constitutes a threat to society."
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