Canadian drug policy: drowning in ideology

Russia's finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, is encouraging citizens to smoke more cigarettes and drink more alcohol, in order to boost the country's sagging tax revenues, so necessary for fighting social evils.

Russia’s finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, is encouraging citizens to smoke more cigarettes and drink more alcohol, in order to boost the country’s sagging tax revenues, so necessary for fighting social evils.

“If you smoke a pack of cigarettes, that means you are giving more to help solve social problems such as boosting demographics, developing other social services and upholding birth rates,” said Kudrin. “People should understand: Those who drink, those who smoke are doing more to help the state.”

Well bless their hearts. Who ever thought that self-indulgence could be so socially responsible? The minister failed to offer an opinion on the “dozens of Russians, many of them drunk,” reported by Reuters to have drowned “daily” during this summer’s heat wave. Did they too contribute to society, by removing themselves from both the welfare rolls and the gene pool?

All of the taxes collected on smoking and drinking will come in handy to cope with Russia’s high rates of both cancer and crime, not to mention maintaining the Russian war machine and the space program, where astronauts are failing to pull their weight – smoking is not permitted on the space station.

Canada’s Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq has not yet added her voice to Kudrin’s, and indeed the official policy of the federal government is to tax cigarettes to the point of pain, based on the assumption that some smokers will be pushed to quitting, while the rest will help to finance their own extended health care. Similarly, governments in Canada don’t go out of their way to encourage boozing, though they rely heavily on the revenues drinkers provide.

Still, not to be outdone on the dangerously silly government-ideas department, Aglukkaq and her cabinet colleagues are committed to the continued criminalization of public health issues such as AIDS and addictions. This July at the International AIDS Conference in Vienna, Aglukkaq refused to sign the Vienna Declaration, a statement, based on sound science, that “The criminalization of illicit drug users is fuelling the HIV epidemic and has resulted in overwhelmingly negative health and social consequences. A full policy reorientation is needed.”

There is ample evidence that, as retired Seattle police chief Norm Stamper puts it, “the global War on Drugs has produced staggering rates of death, disease, crime, and corruption.” Even more to the point, as Nobel Luareate Dr. Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, a director at the Institut Pasteur and the discoverer of HIV tells us, “Current illicit drug policy is a serious obstacle in the global fight against HIV/AIDS.”

Canada’s Conservative government is opposed to harm-reduction programs such as safe injection sites and needle-exchange programs. Despite evidence that criminal prosecution doesn’t stem drug use and makes it harder for health-care workers to reach out to addicts, in turn making it much harder to control drug-related disease, the Harper government is pushing for stronger enforcement and harsher penalties for both trafficking and simple possession of drugs.

Here is a case of right-wing ideology manifest as government policy in the face of all the evidence that it doesn’t work. If you wonder how successfully the War on Drugs curbs drug crime, US drug czar Gil Kerlikowske told The Associated Press, “In the grand scheme, it has not been successful. Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified.”

More than half a million Americans are in prison on drug-related charges. AIDS and hepatitis C are still rampant in that country; gangs that sell drugs rule many poor neighbourhoods, and the US war effort in Afghanistan is stymied by the multi-million-dollar poppy industry, tonnes of whose product ends up in American veins.

Is this the path Canada wants to tread? Will we choose ideology over science, prosecution over treatment, vengeance over care? Will we spend billions locking people up and destroying lives when we know that the net result is to increase gang violence, alienate poor neighbourhoods, promote the spread of disease, and ruin countless lives?

When you come right down to it, it makes about as much sense as encouraging the populace to drink vodka till it drowns itself.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.

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