[h2]Continuing the 'war on drugs' is not helping the addicted[/h2]
[h4]Philip Owen, Special to the Sun[/h4]
Published: Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Cocaine or crack cocaine started to be distributed in large quantities in Vancouver in 1995. Along with heroin, crack led to increased transmission of HIV-AIDS and hepatitis C and to premature deaths from overdoses.
Crime, especially home and car break-ins, skyrocketed as addicts sought money for their habit.
It became obvious very quickly that we had already lost the war on drugs -- a war that we had been fighting for almost 100 years when we first banned cocaine in 1908. To save our children, young people and adults who were the victims of the drug dealers, we needed a different strategy that was supported by the community.
In 1996, the city of Vancouver started consulting with experts from around the world. Every expert we consulted who was dealing directly with the problems associated with drug addiction led us to the same conclusion.
Those who are addicted are our children, siblings, fathers and mothers who did not choose a life of addiction, illness, crime and eventual early death. They are the victims and they require medical assistance.
The question for the city was whether it should embrace this humane and medical approach to drug addiction. Every few years we revisit this same debate. Our country is revisiting it now.
Should we end support for medical approaches that recognize that addicts are ill, and that the drug dealers are evil, and go back to the war on drugs? Or do we build on the successes we have had over the past five years with the medical approach?
There are those, especially at the federal level, who support the crime and punishment approach. They are uncomfortable with the tools used in the medical approach to addiction, especially with treatment and harm reduction strategies. They ask that we have more police on the streets, more lawyers and judges in the courtrooms and more space in our jails.
In 2001, Vancouver opted for the alternative approach -- treating drug addiction as a medical problem. Vancouver adopted a four pillars approach -- prevention, treatment, enforcement and harm reduction. This approach does not have the 100-year record of the war on drugs, but Vancouver has five years of experience in implementing it.
With the cooperation of the federal government, we opened a supervised injection site in downtown Vancouver in 2003. The most recent study of the effects of this site shows that it reduces public disorder, refers users to addiction counselling, saves lives and improves health because it significantly reduces needle sharing. We are now planning a detox centre that will be part of the injection site so that we can provide service by intervening at the most critical time.
It has been difficult to improve the quality of life of the ill when the first battle had to be against the prejudice of decision-makers who preferred to see the immorality of drug use rather then the immorality of abandoning our fellow citizens to illness and early death.
To keep moving forward we need leadership at the federal level. Every mayor in every large city in Canada knows that the social problems associated with homelessness, such as inadequate housing choices, adequate supports for those suffering mental illness, adequate shelter beds, detox units and treatment centres are intimately tied up with drugs and addiction.
Thirty years ago our nation began to treat tobacco addiction as a medical problem. We put in harm reduction, treatment, prevention and enforcement programs. It has taken a long time, but we have reduced tobacco use to 19 per cent of the population from a high of 35 per cent in 1985.
We are beginning to see the benefits of this approach in lower rates of chronic disease, lower health care costs and longer lives, among other examples. This approach worked because Ottawa took a leadership role in seeing that addiction to this drug (nicotine) was a medical condition, not a character flaw.
Now the federal government must take a leadership role in combating drug addiction across Canada as it did with tobacco. It must support all four pillars if the program is to be successful. That includes support for Vancouver's supervised injection site.
In the end, it is scientific fact and medical evidence, not rigid political ideology, that should guide our public policy decisions.
Philip Owen is the former mayor of Vancouver.