Tag Archives: drug use

Emerging Neo-Progressive Issues: Drug Policy

As many of you know Taylor and I wrote a piece on what we termed neo-progressivism in last September’s Literary Review of Canada.

Since then we’ve keep our eye out for other discussions where we think neo-progressives are gaining traction in the public discourse. Some of the indicators we looking for are policies where:

  • The conversation is deadlocked and going nowhere
  • The conversation isn’t possible because alternatives to the status quo are considered taboo
  • Areas where the gap between ideology and research or evidence is significant
  • Debates where their are real divisions within either the left or right
  • Debates which unite odd factions from within the left and right
  • Policy areas where individual freedom is curtailed
  • Places where the impact on the public in general is growing

This list isn’t exhaustive nor is it a scientific – they are just a couple of triggers wer look our for.

Well, if you are looking at this list you may have noticed that last month a potential candidate emerged far on the horizon. It was a surprising one for me since I do some volunteering around this issue here in Vancouver and I really didn’t see it coming.

I’m talking of drug prohibition.

The aha moment was seeing the (very) conservative Cato Institute publish a report by Glen Greenwald (a case study neo-pragmatists) in which he analyzed the impact of drug decriminalization in Portugal. As the report’s summary states:

For over seven years, drugs have been decriminalized in Portugal. This new study examines the Portuguese model and the data concerning drug-related trends in Portugal, and argues that, “judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalization framework has been a resounding success.”

Then consider drug prohibition against the list I outlined above. This topic should not have snuck up on me:

  • Deadlocked conversation: The “War on Drugs” vs. “Marijuana activists” increasingly leaves the public turned off. The war on drugs industry and its militarization of the police is costly, dangerous to civil liberties and has failed to address the problem for 30 years. Indeed, as the RCMP now admits, reducing the flow of drugs actually renders the situation more dangerous for citizens. Conversely, the counter-culture movement around pot activists is equally alienating. It is hard to attract middle class support when every middle class parent fears that this counter-culture will become the norm and their children will be destined life as a pot-head.
  • Alternatives to the status quo are taboo: For most politicians talking about ending drug prohibition is absolutely taboo, although this is shifting. Vancouver’s mayor recently stated that the sate should “regulate, control and tax marijuana,” and that “the prohibition approach to it is not working.” The Liberals under Martin considered decriminalizing marijuana. Even in the US there is movement. The legislatures of New York State, California and Massachusetts have begun to reconsider overly punitive drug laws. Senators Jim Webb and Arlen Specter recently proposed Congress create a national commission to explore prison reform and drug-sentencing policy.
  • Large gap between ideology and research or evidence: Here the Cato report, along with the data coming out of the Downtown Eastside around Insite and NAOMI trials is most devastating. The rhetoric around law & order does not stack up against the results. Consider that in Portugal after decriminalization (pulled from this Time Magazine article on the report)
    • lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%; drug use in older teens also declined. (a 33% drop!!!)
    • lifetime heroin use among 16-to-18-year-olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8% (although there was a slight increase in marijuana use in that age group). (a 25% drop!)
    • new HIV infections in drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003, and deaths related to heroin and similar drugs were cut by more than half.
    • the number of people on methadone and buprenorphine treatment for drug addiction rose to 14,877 from 6,040, after decriminalization, and money saved on enforcement allowed for increased funding of drug-free treatment as well. (150% increase in people seeking treatment!)
  • Divides the left or right: Check out this Western Standard blog (possible the most conservative publication in Canada) in which a conservative columnist argues with a conservative reader about the evidence around ending prohibition. I never thought I’d see the day where a Western Standard columnist would explore the possibility of ending prohibition. Could endorsing harm reduction strategies be far behind?
  • Unite odd factions from within the left and right: Could possible unite traditional left wing progressives with right-wing libertarians.
  • Individual freedom is curtailed: Check. The literature of the impact of the “war on drugs” on civil liberties in the United States is vast.
  • Growing impact on the public: drug violence in the US and Canada appears to be on the rise and a bordering country, Mexico, is becoming unstable. Much like alchohol prohibition in the 30’s at some point the public is going to connect gang violence with drugs – at which point a wider debate may become possible.

Do I think drug prohibition is going to end tomorrow? Absolutely not. But I won’t be surprised if we see movement at the local and state/provincial level this issue. Indeed, I believe it has been gaining traction for some time.

Follow the link to get a free copy of the Cato Institute’s study “Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies.”

Injection site lies

So the conservatives have started sending around this flier which very subtly uses language to undermine the Insite injection site and harm reduction strategies. It also, of course, misleads the public about the course of action that is effective in addressing drug use. Pumping billions of dollars into a 3 decades old “drug war” that has seen drug use increase and narcotics become more available and cheaper, is portrayed as the only effective answer.

It is a fear based approach more and more people are starting to question. For example, in this piece, Mark Easton of the BBC charts how the war on drugs has actually helped grow the drug industry in the UK.

So in order to help fight the disinformation of the Conservative machine, I’ve taken a quick stab at highlighting some of the fliers problems.

Update: Turns out that the Vancouver Sun has deemed this news worthy as well. 24 hours after this post they published this story.

Expert Advisory Committee report: Insite works

insiteLate Friday afternoon (PST) Health Canada tried to quietly release the Final report of the Expert Advisory Committee on Supervised Injection Site Research. (Since government reports are public domain I’ve created a downloadable, easier to read, PDF version that can be found here).

Why quietly release such an upbeat report? Because the Health Minister is ideologically committed to closing Insite. Unfortunately for him, the report confirms what researchers and scientists have been telling us all along: that Insite works.

Consequently, for what must be the first time in Health Canada’s history the department is trying to bury a study that highlights how one of its programs improves healthcare outcomes to Canada’s most marginalized citizens.

Ah, the irony.

Well, one can’t blame him. The Minister simple doesn’t want anyone to know that his own hand picked experts have robbed him of any scientific basis for ending the program.

Below are some of the report’s highlights about how INSITE benefits the public:

  • INSITE encourages users to seek counseling, detoxification and treatment. Such activities have contributed to an increased use of detoxification services and increased engagement in treatment. Translation: INSITE helps drug users get off drugs.
  • Observations taken 6 weeks before and 12 weeks after the opening of INSITE indicated a reduction in the number of people injecting in public. Translation: INSITE gets drug users off the streets, making the safer and more community friendly.
  • There was no evidence of increases in drug-related loitering, drug dealing or petty crime in areas around INSITE. Translation: INSITE doesn’t increase crime.
  • A private security company contracted by the Chinese Business Association reported reductions in crime in the Chinese business district in a surrounding area outside the DTE. Analysis of police data for the DTE and surrounding areas showed no changes in rates of crime recorded by police. Translation: INSITE definitely doesn’t increase crime.
  • There is no evidence that INSITE influence rates of drug use in the community or increase relapse rates among injection drug users. Translation: INSITE doesn’t encourage drug use.
  • Every dollar spent on INSITE saved 0.97 to 2.90 in government spending on other services. Translation: INSITE saves taxpayers dollars – especially in heathcare costs.

These benefits are significant. However, the Conservatives spin machine is already hard at work. Specifically, it is trying to use this line – out of context – to support its claim that INSITE is ineffective:

“The injections at INSITE account for less than 5% of injections in the Downtown Eastside. This limits the likelihood of significant direct impact from INSITE in the Downtown Eastside.”

However, since the report also points out (contrary to what James Moore has misleadingly telling his constituents) that:

“An average of more than 600 visits a day shows that INSITE operates near capacity.”

The report isn’t arguing that INSITE is ineffective, it’s simply pointing out that it isn’t large enough to meet the demand. This is akin to claiming that a hospital should be declared “ineffective” and shut down because the people it didn’t have the capacity to serve were still dying of heart attacks.

The Conservatives now have two months before the June deadline they created to decide: are they going to shut down a program that reduces drug addiction and saves the public money?

The old, old, old war on drugs

Last night I was able to swing by the Wosk Centre for Dialogue to see Prof. Bruce Alexander receive the Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in support of Controversy (A prize established at Simon Fraser University to honor work which challenges complacency and that provokes controversy).

Prof. Alexander spoke of his personal history and research into addiction, but during the speech one factoid really stuck out.

He pointed out that the war on drugs has been going on much longer than I suspected. Indeed, in 1922 the government of the day apparently introduced whipping and deportation as a punishment for addiction and drug use. This is a level of shaming and deterrence the current government could only dream of implementing.

Did it have any impact on drug use? Of course not.

If whipping didn’t work, how is a “just say no” combined with stiffer criminal penalties going to have an impact? The creation of mandatory minimum sentences in the 1970s’ had no impact on drug use… how will this differ?

So why does the current government believe it’s new “tough on drugs” approach will yield better results? Because the new conservative drug policy isn’t about achieving results, it is about looking tough. Sadly, as it drives drug users and addicts further underground it will likely push them further out of reach of health and social workers, making the problem worse, not better.

Sigh…