Doctor: Drug war waged against wrong people
Vancouver physician will speak in Seattle Thursday
As a physician who treats patients at North America's only safe injection site, Dr. Gabor Mate has no patience for warrior bureaucrats who waste billions and jail thousands trying to curb illegal drug use.
"The whole 'War on Drugs' is making war on people who were most abused in the first place," Mate said in a telephone interview from the Vancouver, British Columbia, center, named Insite. Mate is campaigning to end the costly, ineffectual war. He will appear at Town Hall Thursday night with former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, a fellow supporter of drug policy reform.
As they speak, a drive gaining momentum in Washington would lift criminal penalties for those possessing small amounts of marijuana. Bills have been introduced in the Legislature, with an initiative campaign just announced.
In the background is a growing feeling among some experts that priority response to hard drugs should move from enforcement to treatment and harm reduction.
Mate, the physician, came to Canada as a boy when his parents escaped Communist-ruled Hungary. In a series of books -- the latest, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts -- he has sought to draw a map for human understanding of people scorned, neglected and persecuted by society (unless they are celebrities who can afford high-priced addiction spas).
"I have yet to have a (drug) patient who was not sexually abused as a child," said Mate. "If you look at hard-core injection addicts, these are people invariably abused as children. Childhood adversity is the greatest causal factor of addition.
"These people carry a lot of shame, personal failure. Drugs numb their feeling, take them away from reality. They just don't make that connection. They are surprised when it is pointed out to them.
"They have been taught they are bad people. They see themselves as failures who have screwed up their lives."
The establishment of a safe injection center in Vancouver has injected America's tough guys into the Canadian city's debate on how to treat addiction in the Downtown East Side.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration chief John Walters appeared before the Vancouver Board of Trade to warn of tighter border restrictions. Ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, visiting British Columbia in 2008 to give a speech, said his way of dealing with heroin addiction was "arresting drug dealers."
Giuliani added: "I think heroin is a very deadly, very deadly drug. I don't think anyone should be encouraged to use it or assisted in using it." Blocked by courts from shutting down the injection center -- or arresting its patrons -- the government of Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper has miscast its mission. It has refused to permit establishment of a second center.
"Allowing and/or encouraging people to inject heroin into their veins is not harm reduction, it is the opposite . . . We believe it is a form of harm addition," in the words of then-Health Minister Tony Clement.
A quiet walk on the Downtown East Side might teach Harper's cabinet ministers a thing or two about public health. Harper sent Parliament packing for five weeks, and is headed to the 2010 Winter Olympics. He might stop to see the suffering as well as doing photo-ops with medalists.
Addicts are present in numbers large enough to draw visits from Seattle TV stations during sweeps months. They used to die in large numbers, from overdoses as well as diseases contracted from needle sharing.
"What the center does is not to stop addiction, but to make it safer," Mate argued. "People do not transmit the HIV/AIDS virus or Hepatitis C."
"Certainly lives have been saved. Given the percentage of overdosed who die, they've probably saved 25 to 30 lives: The problem is the safe injection site is only a small part of the overall injection level in Vancouver. The problem is not concept, but that the facility is not large enough."
Vancouver and British Columbia are officially moving toward a "Four Pillars" approach to drug use. The pillars are harm reduction, treatment, prevention and enforcement.
Mate pillories officialdom, however, for talking a better game than it plays.
"It's a nice idea, but we're not doing it," he said. "We actually have one pillar and three toothpicks. Pillars of equal strength are needed to hold up a house, or it collapses. All the money is still going into enforcement."
He is a provocative, passionate man with much to fuel his passion.
At the edge of Chinatown, on a winter night eight years ago, I watched an emaciated young woman named Sheila roll up her shirt sleeve as a prelude to injection. An addict, eating lunch at St. James Anglican Church, shook so hard that soup spilled down his shirt.
A French photographer, Marc Josse, spent months on the Downtown East Side, producing a gallery of human subjects, in his words, "suffering and dying of indifference."
Former Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell was a cop on the Drug Squad, but later became British Columbia Chief Coroner . . . and a passionate advocate for giving addicts a place with clean needles, but also the chance to clean up their lives.
What changed him, I asked. Campbell gave a simple answer: "I became a coroner. My goal was not enforcement. It became saving peoples' lives.
By JOEL CONNELLY
January 12, 2010 10:11 p.m. PT
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Doctor: Drug war waged against wrong people