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Pubdate: Tue, 28 Apr 1998 Source: Globe and Mail (Canada) Contact: http://www.globeandmail.ca/ Author: Gordon Gibson THERE MUST BE A BETTER WAY THAN THE WAR ON DRUGS Suppose you were a uniformed policeman preparing for a major conference, and at the last minute you received the following from the chief (who had known the contents for weeks): "I confirm that you were ordered by me not to present your paper titled 'Recovering Our Honour: Why Policing Must Reject the War on Drugs'Š" Well, Constable Gil Puder, Vancouver City Police badge number 1167, went ahead and gave his speech anyway. This was not a career-advancing move. The powerful presentation was the wind-up event of last week's Fraser Institute gathering in this city on "Sensible Solutions to the Urban Drug Problem." Speakers from Switzerland and England and around North America concluded the obvious: Current drug policy in Canada (as imported from the United States and then diluted for the gentler Canadian psyche) is just not working, and more of the same won't help. It may be obvious, but as the chief's words above imply, the senior establishment of our justice system is not ready for a fundamental look at alternatives. Various conference papers pointed out the human tragedies, the enormous economic cost of illicit drugs, and the grotesque monopoly profits that accrue untaxed to criminals as a result of the artificial market created by the law. (The legal alcohol and tobacco drugs have costs too; but the habits are out there where we can see them, tax them, and in due course beat them back through education.) Richard Stevenson of Liverpool University argued that the unique and largest cost of illicit drugs is their threat to institutions and to respect for and observance of law and order, The law is called into disrepute just that extra bit further when millions of Canadians are branded cannabis crooks. The financing of other organized crime, the corruption of public officials and the diversion of scarce police resources to chasing the pathetic users take their own toll. As Milton Friedman said almost 10 years ago, "Drugs are a tragedy for addicts. But criminalizing their use converts that into a disaster for society." There are answers out there. Ueli Minder of the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health described a large-scale, long-term heroin maintenance experiment in his conservative country, in which a number of addicts were given regular doses of heroin under controlled conditions. The dramatic results have included large drops in homelessness, a major reduction in illicit heroin and cocaine use, an improvement in the employment rate (in the treatment group) to 32 per cent from 14, and an eventual significant switch to other, more conventional treatments such as methadone maintenance and abstinence therapy. Dr. Jeffrey Singer of Arizona explained how, through the use of initiatives in that state (which enable a large enough group of citizens to force a proposed new law to a public vote), a new legal regime has been adopted. Studies had shown that 91 per cent of Arizonans were convinced that the "war on drugs" was a failure, but only 21 per cent were prepared to legalize them, because they didn't want to send the message to young people that any drug was "okay." The new Arizona law, which passed by a margin of 65 per cent to 35, applies to all illicit drugs and makes three changes. The first is tough: Violent crime associated with drug use means no eligibility for parole. But recreational possession draws only probation for the first two incidents (on the third strike, you're out); and medical use of any drug is permitted, with a doctor's certificate. Many at the Vancouver meeting wondered why we aren't trying such things in Canada. This was not your usual Fraser Institute conference - copies of Cannabis Canada (a magazine) were passed out by the publisher, and people arrived at the microphone to describe their 20-year old heroin habit - so there were representatives of drug reality on hand, and they asked that question. One of them, obviously known to the police delegates, asked why not a single politician in the country would carry the case of the three million Canadians (his number) who use marijuana. Economist and former MP Herb Grubel gave one answer. Herb got into big trouble in the last Parliament by asking simple, basic questions about Canada's equally failed aboriginal policy, and was totally trashed by the media and other parties for his pains. Politicians seek votes, he told the Fraser gathering, not hard truths or controversy As Daniel Savast of Angus Reid told the group, a slight majority of Canadians would support the decriminalization of marijuana, but the political risk is high. We need a few brave leaders - which brings us back to Gil Puder. He is very much his own man, which is no doubt why he is still a constable after 16 years. He is highly respected by the rank and file, and much published. He has shot bank robbers and lost a colleague in a drug raid. He teaches hand-to-hand combat, has beaten cancer - and speaks his mind. There is not enough room here to assess the substance of his analysis and remedies (creating a government-regulated marijuana distribution system, and approaching other drugs as health rather than criminal issues). But here is an insider who has put his job on the line to advance the public debate. Thank you, Mr. Puder.