Tony Newman at (646) 335-5384 or Tommy McDonald at (212) 613-8036
The Conservative-led Canadian government appears poised to follow the failed “get tough on drugs” approach of its neighbor to the south, the United States.
Canadian officials are expected to announce a $64 million anti-drug strategy that will include funds to prevent drugs from crossing the border and harsher penalties for people charged with drug law violations.
Expected to be left out of the Canadian proposal is any money for harm reduction strategies–a public health approach designed to reduce the harms of drug use. Vancouver is home to a cutting-edge safe injection site that has done more to reduce addiction, crime and the spread of disease than failed get-tough strategies. In 2003, the city established supervised injection sites where users can take their drugs in a sterile environment, and with oversight of clinical staff.
Earlier this year, US Drug Czar John Walters came to Ottawa in an attempt to persuade Canada to follow the lead of the U.S. in its drug control strategy. However, Walters’s own efforts at home to create a so-called “drug-free” society have been mired in failure and ineptitude.
“Looking to the United States as a role model for drug control is like looking to apartheid-era South Africa for how to deal with race,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, the United States’ leading organization promoting alternatives to the war on drugs.
Drug-policy reformers in the U.S. have been encouraged by Canada’s willingness–at least until now–to look to Europe rather than the United States for drug-control models. When HIV/AIDS started spreading a generation ago among people who inject drugs, both Europe and Canada were quick to implement needle exchanges and other harm-reduction programs, even as the United States opted instead to allow hundreds of thousands to become infected and die needlessly.
Heroin-prescription trials are now underway in Montreal and Vancouver, with the goal of determining whether what worked so well in Switzerland, Germany, The Netherlands and other countries also can work in Canada. The same is true of supervised injection sites, which have proven effective in reducing fatal overdoses, transmission of infectious diseases, and drug-related nuisance. And most recently, Vancouver’s mayor, Sam Sullivan, broke new ground by proposing that cocaine and methamphetamine addicts be prescribed legal substitutes in order to reduce their associated harms.
The new proposal from the Canadian government is being met with skepticism and disdain.
“This is a failed approach. The experiment is done. The science is in,” Thomas Kerr, a researcher of the University of British Columbia and a member of the university’s faculty of medicine, told the Globe and Mail in a recent interview.