Pubdate: Thu, 17 Mar 2016
Source: National Post (Canada)
Copyright: 2016 Canwest Publishing Inc.
Author: Tom Blackwell
Page: A1


Progressive Plan Earns Eruption of Applause

The Liberal government used its first foray into the global 
anti-narcotics arena this week to signal a clear shift from the war 
on drugs philosophy, promising more safe-injection sites, promoting 
"harm reduction" and touting its plan to legalize marijuana.

The speech by Hilary Geller, an assistant deputy minister of health, 
caused a stir at the generally staid Commission on Narcotic Drugs 
conference in Vienna, observers said.

The audience of government and non-governmental organization 
officials from around the world "erupted in applause" midway through 
the address and gave a prolonged ovation at the end, said Jason 
Nickerson, an Ottawa-based researcher who is attending the meeting.

The talk not only contrasted with the Harper government's 
international stance on drugs, but stood out from the cautious 
pronouncements most other nations made, said the Bruyere Research 
Institute scientist, who favours more liberal policies. "There are 
some countries here that are coming out and saying important, 
progressive things," he said. "But it's certainly not as explicit as 
what Canada is saying."

A Conservative opposition critic had a different reaction, sounding 
the alarm about Geller's prediction of more government-sanctioned 
injection sites - where opioid users can use illicit intravenous 
drugs under a nurse's supervision.

While the Supreme Court of Canada ruled such sites legal, the 
Conservatives passed legislation requiring extensive public 
consultations and other measures before they could be set up, said 
Rob Nicholson, the party's justice critic.

"Drugs that are used at these injection sites, mostly heroin, are 
dangerous and addictive and they kill Canadians," said the former 
justice minister.

"I disagree with the idea they are safe. There's nothing safe about 
taking heroin."

Nicholson also stressed that the Conservatives invested hundreds of 
millions of dollars in drug-abuse treatment and prevention.

Still, the Harper government was generally tough on the issue, 
implementing mandatory-minimum jail sentences for some trafficking 
offences and beefing up police narcotics enforcement.

On the world stage, it opposed having international conventions 
embrace harm reduction, programs that focus on preventing the side 
effects of illegal drug use - like HIV infection - rather than 
prosecution. That put the Conservative government in league with some 
of the world's most authoritarian states, said Richard Elliott, head 
of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

Under Harper, Canada also failed to condemn the death penalty for 
drug offences, enforced regularly by nations like Iran and Indonesia, he said.

Geller stressed this week her government opposes capital punishment 
"in all cases."

Her stance generally marked a "180-degree" shift, said Donald 
MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. 
"It was very moving for the Canadians in the room, people who have 
been working on this issue for 10 years in a context where Canada has 
been more aligned with China and Russia and Pakistan."

The Vienna conference is a precursor to the UN General Assembly's 
special session on drugs this year, which will consider a possible 
overhaul of international narcotics treaties and their law and order approach.

Geller said Canada remains committed to combating illicit drug 
activities, but believes a comprehensive public-health approach is 
needed, including prevention and treatment.

Harm reduction is "critical," she said, referring to needle-exchange 
programs and safe injection sites, as in Vancouver and as requested 
by advocates in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

"With one long-standing supervised injection site already operating 
in Canada, we have recently approved a second, and anticipate that 
there will be others in future," said Geller.

She also defended the government's plan to "legalize, strictly 
regulate and restrict access to" marijuana.

The current approach is not working, with high rates of pot use among 
young people, thousands of Canadians earning criminal records for 
non-violent offences and organized crime reaping huge profits, said Geller.

A day earlier, another United Nations body had chided Canada for its 
cannabis intentions, which it said violated the international 
Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom