PM's new drug plan a bust?

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

PM Stephen Harper, Minister of Health Tony Clement, and Minister of Public Safety Stockwell Day met up in Winnipeg last Thursday to announce a new National Anti-Drug Strategy. The strategy "will provide $63.8 million over two years to prevent illegal drug use in young people, treat people who have drug addictions and fight illegal drug crime."

Harper asserted that the plan "will be tough on drug crime and compassionate for victims."

The plan includes prevention, treatment, and enforcement options. People who have faced addiction issues or have worked with those who have point out that the plan is missing one key factor: funding and support for harm reduction initiatives.

Harm Reduction works to mitigate the effect of drug use on people who use drugs. Harm Reduction might include dispensing needles and safer crack kits, providing safe injection sites, funding on-the-street outreach workers, and increasing access to healthcare.

BJ Caldwell, an Outreach worker with the AIDS Committee of Guelph and Wellington, said that Harm Reduction strategies are a scientifically-proven way to reduce the risk of HIV and Hepatitis C transmission for people who use drugs. "The Conservatives have taken an anti-health and anti-science approach to the drug problem," BJ said, calling Harper's Strategy "very frustrating."

Caldwell also questioned Harper's claim that the strategy would be "compassionate" for drug users: "how can leaving users at the mercy of HIV and Hepatitis C be compassionate?" While Caldwell was pleased to hear that the government was increasing funding for treatment strategies, noting that space in treatment facilities is very hard to come by, he asserted that the government had "dropped the ball" by "completely ignoring one of the four pillars of drug policy."

Earlier this year, I attended a Harm Reduction conference in the Peel Region. Senator Larry Campbell, who helped to set up and support North America's only official safe injection site in Vancouver, Insite, lambasted the US approach to drug use. It's effective, he said, only if we want to see prisons as a growth industry.

Caldwell agreed. "Adopting the US style is absolutely the wrong way to go," he said. "Conservatives have ignored the success of Insite -- The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine have both shown that it works."

The Guelph Union of Tenants and Supporters (GUTS) has condemned Harper's new drug strategy. Amy Hiljek of GUTS asserted in a press release on October 4th that the war on drugs has been an "abject failure." She added, "all it has done is allowed marginalized communities to be further criminalized, built up a prison industry, and destroyed families."

Caldwell asserted that an ideological shift in the way Conservatives view the drug problem is necessary. "It's not a criminal issue," he said, "it's first and foremost a health issue." He went on to say that Harm Reduction strategies -- needle dispensing programs, for example -- keep drug users engaged with social services agencies, so that they know where to get a referral for treatment when they are ready to quit.

GUTS held a panel about Harm Reduction last February. Video from that panel is available here. GUTS provides harm reduction supplies -- needles and safer crack kits -- every Sunday as part of their Sunday supper.


Campbell, Larry. Keynote Address. Harm Reduction Works! Peel Harm Reduction Network. February 27, 2007.

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