Drug policy seriously outdated

Posted on in Health Policy Context

WinnipegFreePress.com – opinion/analysis
09/22/2014.   By: Richard Elliott and Donald MacPherson

With Parliament back in session, yet another regressive bill, blatantly at odds with scientific evidence, is again on the table. Bill C-2, coming up for committee hearings, would make changes to Canada’s drug laws with the clear objective of impeding supervised drug consumption services such as Vancouver’s highly successful Insite. It’s more of the same tired “war on drugs” ideology of the last decades.

But as MPs in Ottawa grapple with this imprudent bill that would harm the health of our communities, progressive world leaders have come together to present a new vision of global drug policy that is firmly rooted in public health, human rights, scientific evidence and plain old common sense.

Last week, the Global Commission on Drug Policy released a groundbreaking report chock full of sensible recommendations that, if implemented, could completely change how we deal with illegal drugs and the people who, for different reasons, use them.

The commission, comprised of former country presidents and other dignitaries, has now challenged current country leaders to shift their outmoded and unrealistic “drug-free world” thinking to a new paradigm of decriminalization and pragmatic, responsible legal regulation. Knowing that the failed (and expensive) war on drugs simply cannot be “won,” these commissioners are asking policy-makers the world over to reconsider hardline stances on drugs that, at best, are ineffective and, at worst, deadly.

Underpinning the Global Commission’s report is the understanding that prohibition, as a framework, just doesn’t work. Full stop. And we need not look beyond our borders to see the effects of this type of dated and oppressive thinking. Here in Canada, we have people needlessly overdosing and unable to get addiction treatment should they desire it. Our prisons are swelling with non-violent offenders who, once incarcerated, are denied access to clean syringes needed to avoid preventable infections.

As with last century’s failed experiment with alcohol, drug prohibition fuels gangs and criminal organizations that seek to exploit drug dependence for profit, with all the violence that ensues. And the stigma attached to drug use is very real, often resulting in flagrant human rights abuses against some of our most vulnerable community members.

But the latest report from the Global Commission reflects an evolution in thinking. Replacing stigma and prohibition with compassion and reason, the Global Commission calls for an approach to the challenge of drugs that is based on scientific evidence, public health principles and human rights standards — including decriminalizing possession for personal use, alternatives to prison sentences and scaling up health services, including harm reduction programs.

They point to concrete success stories from countries around the world illustrating the health, social and economic benefits of such reforms to drug laws.

The timing for this forward thinking couldn’t be better. In 2016, the United Nations General Assembly will hold a special session to shape the future of global drug policy. In 1998, when the last special session on drugs was held, many governments were still calling for a “drug-free world.” Years later, it’s clear that this is delusional thinking. This time around, world leaders need to seize the chance to get it right, and a growing number appear to recognize this.

But in Canada, it seems the government can’t let go of the past, and Bill C-2 is just another worrisome example of choosing dogma over evidence. Instead of facilitating the development of supervised consumption services where they’re needed, the bill would stymie them with numerous hurdles — many of them practically insurmountable — that must be overcome before our Health Minister will grant the golden exemption allowing a service to move forward.

Canada now faces an important choice. Our government can persist in intensifying the misguided and thoroughly debunked war on drugs, including blocking evidence-based health services with ill-conceived legislation and continuing to waste taxpayers’ dollars by prosecuting and jailing people who need such services.

Or we could join the growing consensus that it’s time to abandon the empty declarations of the 1990s and rethink global drug policy, and thereby actually make people and communities healthier and safer.

Richard Elliott is the executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and Donald MacPherson is the executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 22, 2014 A9

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