Cracking down will not solve Yukon’s crack problem

The territory has a drug problem. The RCMP is cracking down. And alleged drug houses are being targeted by the Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods…

The territory has a drug problem.

The RCMP is cracking down.

And alleged drug houses are being targeted by the Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods office.

But this isn’t the best solution, said Vancouver East MP Libby Davies, during a harm-reduction meeting in Whitehorse on Tuesday.

“Rather than responding to the problem by arresting or criminalizing people, it should be dealt with as a health issue,” she said.

It’s easy to vilify drug users, said Davies.

“It’s the oldest trick in the book to say these are good citizens and those are bad citizens.

“The generalizations and the stereotypes are quite frightening.”

People are concerned about the visibility of drug use, about drug houses and endangering their kids.

And rightfully so, said Davies.

But there are alternate ways to deal with the problem.

“The critical thing is not to divide people,” she said.

In her Vancouver riding, Davies works with drug-user organizations, like VANDU (Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users).

Comprised of active users, the group members speak out about their experiences and help each other.

VANDU changed the face of drug use in Vancouver, said Davies.

“They became human beings as opposed to people who were just vilified.”

Davies riding also boasts Insite, the first supervised injection site in North America.

The facility, which opened in September 2003, is staffed by program assistants, registered nurses, alcohol and drug counsellors and co-ordinators. It can accommodate 850 injections a day.

“It’s much better to have people shooting up in a safe facility where there are nurses and peer counsellors than having them on the street, on your doorstep, or in a back alley,” said Davies.

“You could take all these people and put them somewhere, I don’t know where — the jails are already full.

“Or you can actually make a good intervention at the community level and make sure people are safe and make sure the community is safe.”

It’s about building healthy communities, she said. “Not just penalizing people for wherever they happen to be and for whatever their reasons.”

Davies is on a cross-Canada tour championing harm reduction.

In its new anti-drug strategy, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has removed any references to harm reduction.

Instead, it is putting greater emphasis on law enforcement, said Davies.

It’s reminiscent of US president George Bush’s war on drugs, which has seen a rise in drug use, she added.

In the past, federal anti-drug strategies have been based on the four-pillars approach — prevention, treatment, enforcement and harm reduction.

Enforcement received most of the funding.

After studying the national drug strategy in 2001, Auditor General Sheila Fraser found 95 per cent of the funding was going toward enforcement.

“And she questioned the effective use of these funds, in a cycle of enforcement and incarceration instead of a health-based approach,” said Davies.

Even when huge amounts of money are funneled into enforcement, it’s not going to act as a deterrent, she said.

“And people are beginning to realize that 90 per cent of crime won’t be affected by having a cop on every corner.

“Drug sweeps target low-level dealers who are mostly users themselves.”

It is easy for elected officials to play into “the politics of fear,” added Davies.

“And Harper has laid down this position that harm reduction is bad — his perspective is, it enables drug users.”

“People think crack-heads when they hear harm reduction,” said Yukon Family Services Association counsellor Michelle Rabeau.

But it’s more than that.

Harm reduction describes programs and projects than aim to reduce health, social and economic harms associated with drug use, according to Davies’ brochure.

Harm reduction is a form of treatment, said Rabeau.

“So getting kids to drink less, or to drink safely is treatment.

“It’s not just going to a 28-day program and never drinking again.”

Lack of treatment is a huge problem in the territory, said Blood Ties Four Directions executive director Patricia Bacon.

And there is no treatment for youth, said Skookum Jim diversion program worker Viola Papequash.

“In the past few years, there has been a huge increase in youth drinking and drugging,” said Papequash.

And youth that need help have to be sent Outside, she said.

“First Nations youth are sent out by their band or their worker,” said Kaushee’s Place co-ordinator Cindy Chiasson.

“But if you are a middle- or low-class white kid there’s absolutely nowhere you can go.”

Chiasson has had women come through the transition home with troubled kids.

There are no resources for them, she said.

Even if programming were available, if there’s no follow-up it’s useless, said Davies.

Supportive housing is a big part of harm reduction, she added. “And Canada used to have great housing programs.

“But those federal dollars are gone.”

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society diagnostic co-ordinator Lilliam Sequeira understands the need for affordable housing in the territory.

“I work with 30 adults who live in the worst poverty,” said Sequeira

As a case in point, she mentioned one mom in her 50s. She and her three adolescent children are being evicted.

“She has no place to go,” said Sequeira.

“And her kids have problems with addictions and the law.”

There are no treatment options for the teenagers, she said.

“And even if they get into rehab, if there is no safe place to go after, then it’s just a vicious circle.”

For some time in BC, overdoses were the leading cause of death for men and women between the ages of 30 and 44, said Davies.

“More than heart attacks, strokes and car accidents.

“And these were preventable deaths.”

Harm reduction works, said Davies, who estimates Vancouver’s safe injection site has prevented 453 overdoses in the past four years.

There is a very strong harm reduction movement in Canada, but many successful community programs really struggle, said Davies.

“Often they don’t get provincial or territorial support and they get very little from the federal government.”

The federal government currently spends 73 per cent of its drug budget on enforcement and less than six per cent on prevention and harm reduction combined, she said.

Davies, who has already visited Toronto, plans to hold forums championing harm reduction in Calgary, Vancouver, Edmonton and Ottawa in the coming months.

“I’m very worried harm reduction is under threat by what’s happening in Ottawa,” she said.