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Canada's Drug Policy Draws U.S. Warning

 





Source: Vancouver Sun (CN BC)
Author: Frances Bula, Vancouver Sun 
Published: Friday, May 02, 2003
Copyright: 2003 Vancouver Sun 
Contact: [email protected]
Website: http://www.canada.com/vancouver/vancouversun/

Easing laws will mean tighter border controls, official says.

Canada and Vancouver are heading for major trouble with their drug policies, a U.S. drug office representative warned Thursday.

Ottawa's plan to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and Vancouver's move to open North America's first injection site for drug users likely will force the U.S. to tighten border controls to prevent increased drug trafficking, said David Murray, special assistant in the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The two initiatives have caused dismay among U.S. officials fighting the war on drugs, as American media like the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes have recently started to focus on the Vancouver initiative, as well as on Canada's plans for a new drug policy.

"This is a critical juncture for Canada," said Murray, who flew to Vancouver for a day of meetings with local police, health groups, municipal politicians, and media to talk about U.S. and Canadian drug policy.

He said the decriminalization initiative "is a matter we look upon with some concern and some regret."

Murray emphasized it's up to Canadians to make their own decisions, but he warned that if Canada decriminalizes marijuana, as Prime Minister Jean Chretien said publicly for the first time this week that his government will do, the existing harmony between the two countries will be ruptured.

"I think the loss of the mutual cooperative partnership we've had with Canadians regarding our borders, regarding the integrity of the hemisphere, regarding our commerce, regarding the implications of trade and value to ourselves, the loss of that would be something truly to be regretted," said Murray, who repeatedly referred to the "unintended consequences" the new drug policies would bring.

"We would have no choice but to respond. My impression is the first concern is what is coming in to our country. How do we examine, how do we understand and how do we try to prevent the flood of illicit substances that we currently cooperatively try to manage with Canadian contribution?

"Clearly, there would be a concern on our part that we must respond to that development."

Murray said that if Canada moves to decriminalize, more young people will use marijuana, police resources will be strapped, and the most vulnerable minority communities will be the most negatively affected by the increased accessibility.

Murray was also critical of Vancouver's four-pillars drug policy, saying it was modeled after the Swiss four-pillars policy, which has its problems.

"I think there are far more serious difficulties with the Swiss model than has been fully acknowledged," he said. "My impression is that there will be unintended consequences and that the presumed benefits will turn out to be illusory. It is something that is less likely to be satisfying because it will not deliver on the promises on which it was sold."

Health advocates have argued for years that injection sites help prevent overdose deaths and infections, keeping addicts alive so they can eventually make it to treatment. They also say the evidence from existing injection sites in Europe shows that injection sites, because they're "low threshold" and non-judgmental, attract addicts to treatment in a way that abstinence-based approaches don't.

Mayor Larry Campbell, who was in Ottawa Thursday meeting with cabinet ministers and health officials to get support for Vancouver's drug strategy and its plan to open the injection site within the next three months, dismissed Murray's criticisms and said that "in the coming years, the U.S. will probably want to emulate us."

But Murray said addicts just aren't capable of getting themselves into treatment and they need incentives, sometimes harsh ones, to push them there.

"We learned in places that had legalization and/or harm-reduction initiatives go forward, for the drug user there's a removal of the incentive to get into treatment and to change their behaviour," he said.

"In the absence of sanctions of law enforcement or in the absence of a sense of outreach and connection with these people that does not involve handing them acceptable means of maintaining themselves around that drug, that people do not have the motive and the capacity to make the changes that are necessary for recovery."

Although Murray's talk was billed as one that would be focused on treatment research, rather than politics, many of his points echoed those made by the head of the drug office, John Walters, when he spoke to the Vancouver Board of Trade last November.

Like Walters, Murray cited Baltimore and its "harm-reduction advocate mayor" as an example of the disastrous effects of a liberal approach to drugs. He said Baltimore, which introduced a needle exchange under Mayor Karl Schmoke, ended up with more drug use, more trafficking, middle-class flight from the city, and job losses that no other American city experienced. 

He also emphasized the dangers of marijuana, saying it is much more potent than it was 30 years ago, that it is tied into the marketing of other drugs and that it acts as the first step on the ladder to those drugs.

"This isn't Woodstock," he said, referring to drug use as a "contagion" that moves from young person to young person. 

Murray, a social anthropologist by training, also said that drug marketing and use in the 20th and 21st centuries is vastly different from any kind of drug use seen in previous cultures because it has been so intensely marketed.

Asked for evidence that the U.S. approach to drugs is effective or better than other approaches, Murray said it's difficult to compare countries because they have different demographic make-ups and cultures that affect drug use.

He admitted that statistics show drug use in Holland, which has decriminalized marijuana, is about the same as in the U.S., which aggressively tries to eliminate its use, but said the more telling statistic is how low the drug-use rate was in Holland before it liberalized its drug laws.

A study in the British Medical Journal in September 2000 indicated that marijuana use among Dutch youth has fallen in recent years. Statistics from the late 1990s show 33 per cent of people in the U.S. over 12 have used marijuana, compared to 16 per cent in Holland. The percentage of heroin addicts in the United States is about triple that of the Netherlands.

Several city councillors from the region were invited to hear Murray's talk and to meet with him privately, including Surrey Councillor Dianne Watts and Vancouver councillors Jim Green and Raymond Louie.

Police, including Vancouver Inspector Bob Rich, were also invited to a separate private session.

Green said he was disappointed by the superficiality of Murray's speech.

"I don't believe I learned anything. It was ideological," said Green, adding Murray was more critical of Vancouver's plans for an injection site in the private session with councillors than he was in the media session. But Green said Murray didn't present any real evidence about what the problems would be.

"I just really was unimpressed with the lack of depth and the lack of analysis."

The U.S. national drug policy office has made a point of combating political initiatives to decriminalize drugs or emphasize a harm-reduction approach. In the recent congressional elections, where several states had ballot initiatives related to decriminalizing drugs, office representatives made a point of going to those states to campaign against the initiatives.

All were defeated.

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