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Source: Vancouver Sun Contact: Pubdate: Dec. 31, 1997 Section: Forum Page: A19, Guest column Author: Gil Puder A COP'S PLEA TO DECRIMINALIZE DRUGS A Vancouver police officer doesn't want to tell one more mother of a son's overdose death. He writes that a publichealth crisis, not a lawenforcement challenge, is besieging us all. WOULD WE RATHER COUNT BODIES? Recently, I had to tell a woman her son had died from a drug overdose. Leaving her world shattered by tragedy, I asked myself what our society is doing to help other mothers whose children are at risk. Absolutely nothing, I'm embarrassed to say. And with seven Vancouver residents dying in one 24hour period from drug overdoses nine in less than two weeks that's not good enough. Rather than constructive action, however, lawmakers frantically rearrange deck chairs on the modern social Titanic. My hope for 1998 is that Santa has left a large measure of courage and wisdom in a number of stockings, so that our children can mark this year as the one when we finally began treating drug abuse as a health issue, rather than a criminal industry. We face no greater threat to the health and safety of our communities than the drug problem. Illicit drugs are driving an HIV epidemic, perpetuating systemic crime that has swamped the criminal justice system and providing limitless business opportunities which bankroll biker gangs and other criminal organizations. The hollow rhetoric of a "war" on drugs has become believable only when applying Clausewitz's definition it's definitely an extension of politics. This contrived contest is the creation of its beneficiaries, who predictably cast themselves as winners in a rather onesided game. Politicians build a law and order image by demonizing drugs and marginalize abusers as the epitome of moral decay. Unfortunately, victims such as a recently murdered 14year old New Westminster high school student just don't fit the rabid junkie stereotype. "Tough" new programs and laws are regularly announced, despite policymakers knowing full well that there is no real money for enforcement. The timehonoured practice of sneaking offenders out the back door of parole and early release is the best evidence of the dearth of funds. Any hope of "winning" with this plan is laughable and Team Western Society is literally getting killed. Suggesting the status quo is flawed risks portrayal as a "loser", however, and politicians quake at the thought of challenging the myth that drugs require a lawenforcement solution. There's plenty of blame to go around. The top is as good a place as any to start: After all, the federal government retains jurisdiction over drug laws and prosecution. Allan Rock, when he was the justice minister, brought in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act; he ducked decriminalization then. Now that he's health minister, he says he can't get involved in drug issues; they're criminal matters. This guy wants the PM's job? AttorneyGeneral Dosanjh has declined to publicly endorse decriminalization; his ministry has received a lengthy report from a former chief coroner recommending just that. And it's "diverting" drugrelated offences from the justice system, pretending a problem doesn't exist. I guess he would rather talk tough and count the bodies. Our prison managers have allowed drug abuse to flourish behind bars. Any reader contemplating tougher sentences for narcotic possession, should first talk to a guard. Police officers have no incentive to explore anything other than the status quo. The Hollywood version of the war on drugs casts us as the good guys. The only thing more addictive than a narcotic is public adulation and, maybe, all that overtime pay the singular pursuit of drugusers can generate for individual officers. The silence of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police makes me wonder how many senior officers built careers in drug enforcement. At some point the policing profession must live up to its image, place public safety ahead of careers and take up the leadership challenge abdicated by elected officials. Our Keystone Kops raid on a downtown hemp cafe doesn't indicate that this will happen anytime soon. Decriminalization would not result in heroin sold at corner stores alongside the penny candy. Various drugs require different forms of regulation, which could be phased in slowly once appropriate legislation and management programs are in place. Provincial jurisdiction could allow for regional differences. As in dress, what is appropriate for Wreck Beach might not work in Labrador. In B.C., lowrisk substances like marijuana could be regulated under a revised provincial liquor act. The benefits to government would be immediate. (I would rather see pot revenues building schools than fortifying biker clubhouses.) The windfall savings on lawenforcement dollars could be plowed into health care, education and rehabilitation, which are the only methods proven to correct substance abuse. Participation would be much easier to encourage when sick people are not stigmatized by criminalizing their addiction. Policing would be a huge beneficiary. Resources could be redirected towards systemic publicsafety problems. Enforcement against the few dealers who remained might actually make a difference. Highrisk narcotics and pharmaceuticals would be managed by the medical community, with guidelines. Trafficking, importation and exporting should remain criminal offences, since these activities would subvert the necessary social controls. The clarion call for decriminalization advocates, is the ludicrous nature of the arguments opponents advance. Drugs in schools? There already. Health concerns? Got an epidemic now. Government's moral responsibility? Yeah, right, just like booze, gambling and honest budgets. In 1984, an armed addict robbed a bank; I fired a fatal round that cost that man his life. Two years later, another junkie with a gun took the life of a friend of mine, Sgt. Larry Young. I don't dislike the drug problem; I hate it. While millions of public dollars are squandered, people continue to die. I'm tired of bringing their families the bad news. I don't care whether we justify decriminalization fiscally or morally, but isn't 1998 about time for a change? Among those who have called for the decriminalization of drug use in this newspaper recently are Perry Kendall, president of the National Addiction Research Foundation, Nov. 18; former premier Mike Harcourt, Oct. 11; and Ken Higgins, a deputy police chief of Vancouver, Oct. 8.