Let’s admit that the war on drugs has been a failure

Rob Breakenridge
Calgary Herald : August 18, 2015

It was a striking contrast last week as Conservative leader Stephen Harper denounced the concept of harm reduction just as Alberta Health Services deployed a version of it.

Harper had a lot to say about drug policy, and it only served to underscore just how irrational and counterproductive our approach is. That didn’t begin with the Tories, obviously, but they have very decidedly and proudly embraced a much harsher brand of prohibitionism.

Harper’s remarks last week didn’t actually touch on the fentanyl crisis — perhaps because it might raise some uncomfortable questions about the unintended consequences of government policy. Fentanyl use has surged following Ottawa’s crackdown on Oxycodone. In 2011, for example, Calgary saw six fatal fentanyl overdoses. We’re at 45 already this year.


Harper’s target, rather, was Insite, Vancouver’s remarkably successful supervised injection site. Insite’s very existence, though, is at odds with Tory doctrine, and they spent years trying to shut it down.

Now the Conservatives are warning that the Liberals and/or NDP would allow more such facilities to open — maybe even in your neighbourhood. In fact, the warning on the Conservative website was accompanied by an ominous photograph of a playground, as though the next Insite might be plunked down right next to it.

Mind you, if you’re not dodging passed-out junkies or used needles when you leave your home, then your neighbourhood is probably a lousy candidate for such a facility. On the other hand, if your neighbourhood is plagued by the grim spectre of heroin addiction, Insite might be a godsend.

Insite’s successes are very much relevant in the context of our struggle to contain fentanyl-related deaths. Fentanyl-laced heroin has been turning up on Vancouver streets, and despite the several overdoses that have occurred at Insite, no one has died there. When one considers the success Insite has had in reducing deaths, reducing injection drug use, reducing drug-related crime, and reducing HIV rates, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The only surprise has been the government’s strident opposition.

A similar dearth of evidence exists around the government’s approach to marijuana. While one federal leader seems to have come to grips with the failure of prohibition, Harper remains completely oblivious to it. He claimed last week that a majority of Canadians in fact support his position on pot, though several recent surveys on the matter would disagree.

Harper made claims about how legalization would lead to greater availability and reduced health outcomes, claims that were thoroughly debunked in a report that was coincidentally released last week by the Toronto-based International Centre for Science in Drug Policy.

Harper also floated the apparently horrifying prospect of marijuana being sold like alcohol and tobacco. Yet, alcohol and tobacco are sold like alcohol and tobacco and presumably Harper also frowns on young people using either of these drugs.

However, Harper himself inadvertently made the case for regulation over prohibition. He talked about the success Canada has had in reducing rates of teen tobacco use, which are now in fact among the lowest in the developed world. He failed to mention, though, that our rates of teenage marijuana use are among the highest in the world. How curious that we’re able do a better job of keeping the legal drug away from kids than the illegal one.

While many of the claims about the Conservatives’ disdain for evidence have been exaggerated or invented, when it comes to our war on drugs, evidence is one of many casualties. It is on this issue where the worst impulses of this government are on full display. More of the same is clearly not the answer.

(read the full article at Calgary Herald