Expert calls tougher drug laws 'insane'
By GLENN KAUTH, SUN MEDIA
A renewed government focus on tougher drug laws in Canada is "insane," a U.S. expert told a conference on substance abuse yesterday.
Mark Kleiman, a professor at UCLA, was responding to an audience question about what advocates can do to counter moves by the Stephen Harper government away from harm-reduction programs, such as Vancouver's safe-injection site, towards longer jail sentences for drug crimes.
"I don't know what to do about insane policies except to identify them as insane," Kleiman told participants at the four-day Issues of Substance event at Edmonton's Shaw Conference Centre.
Marliss Taylor, the program manager at the city's Street Works needle-exchange program, is also concerned about proposed federal laws unveiled last week which would, among other changes, impose a two-year mandatory prison sentence for dealing drugs such as cocaine and heroin.
"Throwing people in jail does not solve an addiction," said Taylor, who called the fight against drugs a "war on people."
The proposed federal laws aim to come down particularly hard on people who sell drugs as part of a gang or who use weapons to ply their trade.
Kleiman, an expert on drug policy, said that while such targeted moves may be worthy, in general, moves to fight drugs through enforcement have failed.
Instead, he called for a "harm-minimizing" approach to enforcement in which police concentrate their efforts on reducing the violence associated with drugs rather than the substance itself.
In New York City, for example, cops have pushed hard to get dealers off the streets, and while people continue to get drugs through other means, the crime that results from the trade has gone down, Kleiman said.
Among his proposals, Kleiman recommends laws decriminalizing marijuana use while allowing people to grow their own pot.
He also cited alcohol as a particularly bad problem, something he said the government could deal with by making booze more expensive through, for example, a 50-cent tax on a bottle of beer.
While Taylor worries such a move would simply turn alcoholics into "poorer drinkers," Kleiman said a tax, although unpopular, shouldn't matter to most people.
"I submit that if a 50-cent tax on alcohol matters to you, you're probably a problem drinker," he said.