You’d think they’d have got the message by now wouldn’t you? That after nearly thirty years of fighting the so-called War on Drugs, with the only result being the near doubling of the inmate populations across North and South America and no decrease in the number of people using, they might be taking the wrong approach.
But it doesn’t appear to have sunk into the thick skulls of the Conservative Party of Canada who are about to release their vaunted drug policy next week. They’ve already scrapped plans for decriminalizing simple possession of marijuana that had been on the table before the last election, and they’ve been making noises about a “Get Tough On Drugs” platform.
How you can get any tougher on illicit drug use then we already are in this country, where simple possession of marijuana can see you put away for up to ten years in jail, I don’t know, but that’s what they’re saying. It doesn’t seem to matter that this policy has shown itself to be totally ineffective in dealing with any sort of drug problem that we have in Canada, it’s just all part of the right wing get tough on crime attitude.
Now there’s no denying that there is a problem with drug addiction in Canada. According to a study released by the Canadian Centre On Substance Abuse the cost to the public, including treatment, disability, and missed work, from alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drug use is $40 billion a year.
Yet as a country we have no national treatment system with which to set standards for the treatment of addictions. We have a hodgepodge of programs that range from overnight stays in a detoxification centre to six-week hospital in patient programs. According to Patrick Smith, head of addiction psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, most Canadians with a substance abuse problem don’t get help even if they want it.
Dr. Smith is part of a group of addiction workers from across Canada who are working towards a March 2008 deadline to draft a framework for a treatment model. They have gathered together a group of policy advisors, treatment specialists, and lawmakers to be involved in the process and hope to receive government funding to implement it.
The object would be to provide frontline caregivers, like family doctors, who are the first to deal with addicts in most cases, a means for helping them find the treatment their clients need. Right now if a person goes to their family doctor seeking treatment for an addiction to an illicit drug, there is no means of assessing what type of treatment the patient needs.
Unfortunately, judging by previous funding patterns, the government doesn’t appear to be very likely to go for the idea. The HIV/AIDS Policy and Law Review published a report recently that outlined just how the government spends 245 million dollars annually on combating drug use. Using information obtained through the access of information act and data on government web sites their statement revealed that 73% went to policing, 14% to treatment, 7% to research and only 3% to harm reduction.
In other words we have an illness that is costing our economy 40 billion dollars a year and our government is doing dick all to prevent that illness from spreading. Putting somebody in jail does not stop them from using drugs, because no matter how much anybody wants to deny it drugs are just as, if not more, prevalent in our jail than on the street.
If the war on drugs has been such a failure, the opposite can’t be said for harm use reduction programs. Vancouver Canada operates the only safe injection site for intravenous drug users in North America if not our hemisphere. According to research conducted by the HIV/AIDS Policy people there’s been a30% increase in the numbers of addicts who enter into detoxification programs among those who make use of the site as compared to the general population.
The study also determined that users of the site were more likely to reduce their Heroin intake, and to seek further treatment once they left detoxification programs than others. In other words they showed an actual commitment to recovering from their addiction as opposed to those who have entered such programs through court orders. (That’s an unsubstantiated observation made on my part based on anecdotal evidence and personal knowledge of how the system works in Canada that people who don’t enter addiction counselling voluntarily have a high rate of relapse.)
One would think that evidence like that in a trial program would be taken as an indication that there are better ways to proceed with helping people overcome their addictions. There is no difference between the mindset of a person who is addicted to alcohol, tobacco, or street drugs. The only difference is what they are addicted to.
Addictions are a symptom of a larger suffering within a person. Simply punishing them for the addiction will not do anything to change that. That doesn’t mean that a person shouldn’t be punished for the behaviour that their addiction causes- if they steal to feed their addiction they should be punished for the theft. But if nothing is done to solve the problem of why they stole in the first place you haven’t accomplished anything.
By treating the causes of a person’s addiction you will eliminate the addict, and the criminal behaviour that accompanies the addiction. You will also eliminate the market for drugs. The fewer addicts there are the less business for drug dealers and the less money made to offset the risk of the business.
The people who are making the real money from drugs are pure capitalists; if a venture starts costing them more then it’s worth to them in profits how many organized crime groups do you think would continue selling? It’s a simple matter of supply and demand. Take away the demand for a product and nobody is going to be bothered with supplying it.
Each addict we heal is one less client for the dealers; each person we educate to the dangers of street drugs is one less person who will become a client. If we took the amount of money that we spend on incarcerating an addict and spent it on a treatment program for him or her we’d be not only saving a person, we’d be saving money in the long run because it increases their chances of staying out of jail, and we decrease the demand for drugs.
That may sound like a long slow process, but if we had a national treatment program think of how many people could be potentially treated on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. The “War On Drugs” has proven to be a failure, isn’t it time we tried a different approach?