HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Our Neighbor To The North Stalling On Reform
Pubdate: Thu, 27 Oct 2005
Source: Gay City News (NY)
Copyright: 2005 Gay City News
Author: Nathan Riley
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Canada)
Bookmark: (Safe Injecting Rooms)
Bookmark: (Walters, John)


Vancouver's reputation as the Amsterdam of North America rests as much
on good intention as actual practice.

John P. Walters, the U.S. government drug czar, unintentionally helped
the British Columbia city gain its reputation when he made a visit
there in November 2002, as Canada was moving toward de facto, if not
full legal decriminalization of marijuana. Walters threatened to slow
cross-boarder traffic, through increased inspection of cars and
trucks, in order to keep Canadian marijuana, particularly the highly
coveted "B.C. bud," out of the U.S. The traffic jams, he warned, would
harm tourism and trade.

In one symbolic gesture of the problems Walters and his U.S. anti-drug
crusaders would face, the drug czar's luncheon speech was interrupted
frequently by marijuana activists.

With huge demand for the new B.C. pot, enforcement against prosperous
Canadian pot farmers would be a giant undertaking, transforming law
enforcement as the mission crowds out other priorities. And polling
data indicates that residents of British Columbia have the most
liberal attitudes in Canada-by 2000, 56 percent supported marijuana's
outright legalization.

While U.S. officialdom focuses on pot, Vancouver has aimed to confront
more difficult substance abuse problems. Its downtown is an epicenter
for drug use, alcoholism in public view on the streets, and
homelessness. HIV infection is common in the homeless population, and
throughout the '90s, overdose deaths reached 600 a year.

The city's skid row scene became a potent issue in municipal politics,
with real estate developers eager to move derelicts out and transform
cheap properties into expensive ones. Drug reformers objected, arguing
that the mix of poverty, dependency, depression, and addiction is a
public health problem. They wanted to keep this population
concentrated and visible so that resources could easily be targeted
toward those persons in need.

Vancouver's efforts were echoed through Canada, as that nation,
repelled by the U.S. drug war efforts and attracted to innovative
policies in Europe, began a thorough review of its drug policies. A
federal Special Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs issued a
multi-volume report calling for the revamping of national drug
policies including decriminalization of marijuana. The Parliament
seemed headed in the same direction as Vancouver.

Vancouver's mayor and City Council resisted the bulk of the real
estate industry's demands and took a number of proactive steps,
including the opening of safe injecting rooms under the supervision of
a medical staff. Needle users shoot up in a sanitary environment with
access to medical services and immediate care if an injection turns
into an overdose. Dr. Richard Mathias, a professor of epidemiology at
the University of British Columbia, glows when he talks about the zero
deaths from inadvertent overdoses at Vancouver's safe injecting rooms.
Across the city, the number of overdoses deaths has been reduced by
two thirds to roughly 200 a year.

At the federal level, the effort is more halting. Though marijuana
arrests have virtually ended in Canada, Parliament has never actually
voted on decriminalization, a matter that keeps getting postponed. A
pilot program that distributes heroin to heavy users has floundered,
as clients must return several times a day for injections. In
Switzerland, the government sells heroin to users, in the wake of a
1999 voter referendum. Proponents of that effort say that by taking
the drug out of the criminal underground, heroin users are able to
hold jobs and pay rent.

Liberal British Columbia has tried to spur greater federal action.
This month, the province's Health Officers Council released a 38-page
report, "A Public Health Approach To Drug Control in Canada." Densely
written, the report combines political science and specific regulatory
schemes with a theoretical justification for approaching all
psychoactive drugs-tobacco, alcohol, cocaine, heroin, and
marijuana-within a common framework. Criminalization, according to the
report has only spurred a "black-market economy," while the tobacco
and alcohol trade is marred by its "for-profit commercial" nature that
relies on ginning up increased consumption.

The report documents research showing that no black market develops
when adults have legal access to psychoactive drugs. The Health
Officers Council calls for legalization, but they do so with a twist.
Regulation of the legal drugs would be tightened so that these
substances are freed from the imperatives of a for-profit strategy,
while illegal drugs are moved into a regulatory framework. The report
calls this a centrist strategy.

The overriding principle the report emphasizes is informed consent.
The Health Officers Council wants producers, distributors, and users
to understand the substances and their effects. For example, the
report favors the use of licenses and programs, as with drivers'
education, for the purchase of psychoactive drugs. Distributors would
be required to make disclosures about the effects of their products or
face sanctions including being put out of business. Mathias argued
that education can work if it relates to the experience youth have
with drugs

"Give the kids the straight goods and they will in general make better
decisions," he said.

According to Mathias, the British Columbia report will be presented to
Parliament as part of a resolution that would declare that existing
drug prohibitions are a violation of the nation's Charter, a rough
equivalent of the U.S. Bill of Rights. The Globe and Mail, Toronto's
biggest newspaper, endorsed "this welcome paper," which it said
"should help push the debate away from criminal sanctions and toward
the public-health model, with its sensible philosophy of reducing
crime, improving health, protecting children, and using tax dollars
more wisely."

Despite this positive response, there is still considerable pessimism
among Canadian drug reformers. The member of Parliament introducing
the Health Officers Council report and sponsoring the resolution comes
from one of Canada's minor parties. Among the major parties, the
Conservatives are strongly influenced by religious fundamentalists who
support prohibition, while the Liberal Party is wary of antagonizing
the U.S. The Globe and Mail has challenged both the moralists and
those who think that Canada " cannot risk legalizing marijuana for
fear of the U.S. reaction" much less talk "about taking possession and
trafficking of cocaine and heroin off the books" to read the British
Columbia report and reconsider their positions.

But the unhappy truth is that while public opinion in Canada is moving
in a progressive direction, no major party is willing to champion drug
reforms. The leadership is lacking to bring the ideas to fruition. The
British Columbia report nonetheless provides information that any
political candidate, in Canada or the U.S., has an obligation to
peruse. They need simply log on to and find a
compelling brief for a new drug policy.
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