Paterson: Why a war on drugs just won't work
Basing policy on belief, not facts, dooms strategy to failure from the start
Jody PatersonTimes Colonist
Friday, October 05, 2007
The problems of ideology-based governance clearly must be more obvious from afar. Otherwise, Canadians wouldn't be able to bear the hypocrisy of railing against oppressive and backward regimes elsewhere in the world while committing ourselves anew to the folly of a war on drugs.
With news this week that we're returning full-force to the same fruitless battle we've already lost several times over, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has once again reminded me why word of his 2006 election plunged me into a pit of despair.
Here we are one more time, at least 60 years after we first heard from the experts that we were doing things all wrong, talking about "crackdowns" and the need to "get tough" with those who use illicit drugs. Posturing about all the butt-kicking we'll be doing at the border once our new anti-drug strategy is in place. Planning the latest version of an earnest but pointless campaign to convince teenagers not to use drugs.
Small wonder I eventually lost my appetite for journalism when I think how many times I've witnessed this particular story cycle unfold. The real tragedy is that the misuse of drugs continues to cost us $40 billion a year in Canada in direct and indirect costs, and that's not even counting all the billions we've thrown away on misguided and ideologically driven attempts to do something about that.
Here's the thing: Health issues can't be resolved through ideology.
For the most part, we understand that. You wouldn't catch us scrapping radiation therapy as a treatment for cancer, for instance, based solely on some politician's belief that the only cure is to eat lots of vegetables. Were we to elect Jehovah's Witnesses to office, I can't see us banning blood transfusions.
So why do we continue to let our elected politicians ignore the science when it comes to drug issues? Why should anybody's poorly informed position around drug use be the lens that we apply when trying to address complex health and social problems that are far too important to be left to political whim?
I respect the right of Stephen Harper and his MPs to believe that using illicit drugs is bad. It's a free country and they're welcome to their opinions, and never mind that alcohol is actually Canada's most dangerous and readily available drug by a long shot. (The social costs of alcohol use in Canada are more than double that of all illicit drugs combined and health-related costs are three times higher.)
But why would we want to base something as important as our national drug strategy on opinion and belief?
We've got six decades worth of scientific studies underlining the importance of an informed, health-based approach in reducing the harm and societal costs of drug use. Yet we're still letting vital public policy be decided by people who would rather maintain their personal fictions than take steps to fix the problems.
"This is a failed approach," University of B.C. researcher Thomas Kerr commented to the media this week about the Harper government's intention to launch yet another anti-drug strategy rooted almost entirely in enforcement. "The experiment is done. The science is in."
We've researched drug-use issues from every possible angle over the years, and have established an astonishing amount of consensus at the scientific level in terms of how Canada can best manage problems related to drug and alcohol use. We verified a long, long time ago that concentrating our efforts on enforcement is not only futile as a way of reducing much of the problem, but also alarmingly costly.
But our current federal drug strategy devotes almost three-quarters of its annual $245-million budget to enforcement. The updated strategy being touted by the Harper government offers more of the same -- and less of what's actually working. Highly successful harm-reduction strategies like Vancouver's safer-injection site are rumoured to be on the chopping block.
What is it that we're trying to change? If it's the flow of drugs into our country, then we need to tackle the issues of demand. We can knock ourselves out trying to stop drugs at the border, but they're going to find their way in no matter what as long as there are Canadians to buy them.
If it's the health risks we're worried about, then we need to be providing honest information to everyone who might use drugs, particularly pre-teens heading into the inevitable experimental years.
The key word is "honest," which implies being truthful about which drugs are truly the scary ones.
Our old friend alcohol certainly wouldn't fare well in that truth-telling. The annual health costs from alcohol consumption in Canada are almost 45 times that of marijuana, and alcohol is far and away the most dangerous drug of all to use during pregnancy.
If it's drug addiction that we want to have an impact on, that entails dramatic, system-wide change, because we're doing almost nothing right on that front at the moment. Addiction is a health issue, plain and simple. We'll get somewhere when we start treating it like one.
So with all due respect, Mr. Harper, believe whatever you like in your personal life. But as prime minister, please run this country on facts and not fiction.
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2007