Tag Archives: harm reduction

How the War on Drugs Destabilized the Global Economy

This is truly, truly fantastic. If you haven’t already read this stunning story from the Guardian: How a big US bank laundered billions from Mexico’s murderous drug gangs. This is, in essence a chronicle how the dark and sordid side of banking and about how one US bank – Wachovia – essentially allowed Mexican drug cartels to launder a whopping $378B.

But this interestingly, is just the tip of the iceberg. It turns out that Mexican money may have been the only thing holding the US financial system together. Check out the following and the last paragraph especially (I’ve bolded it, it is so stunning):

More shocking, and more important, the bank was sanctioned for failing to apply the proper anti-laundering strictures to the transfer of $378.4bn – a sum equivalent to one-third of Mexico’s gross national product – into dollar accounts from so-called casas de cambio (CDCs) in Mexico, currency exchange houses with which the bank did business.

“Wachovia’s blatant disregard for our banking laws gave international cocaine cartels a virtual carte blanche to finance their operations,” said Jeffrey Sloman, the federal prosecutor. Yet the total fine was less than 2% of the bank’s $12.3bn profit for 2009. On 24 March 2010, Wells Fargo stock traded at $30.86 – up 1% on the week of the court settlement.

The conclusion to the case was only the tip of an iceberg, demonstrating the role of the “legal” banking sector in swilling hundreds of billions of dollars – the blood money from the murderous drug trade in Mexico and other places in the world – around their global operations, now bailed out by the taxpayer.

At the height of the 2008 banking crisis, Antonio Maria Costa, then head of the United Nations office on drugs and crime, said he had evidence to suggest the proceeds from drugs and crime were “the only liquid investment capital” available to banks on the brink of collapse. “Inter-bank loans were funded by money that originated from the drugs trade,” he said. “There were signs that some banks were rescued that way.”

But the more interesting part of the story, that picks up on the above quote by Antonio Maria Costa, lies deeper in the story:

“In April and May 2007, Wachovia – as a result of increasing interest and pressure from the US attorney’s office – began to close its relationship with some of the casas de cambio.”

and, a paragraph later…

“In July 2007, all of Wachovia’s remaining 10 Mexican casa de cambio clients operating through London suddenly stopped doing so.”

In other words from April through July, with increasing intensity, Wachovia got out of the drug money laundering business. Of course, this just also happens to be at the exact same time that the liquidity crisis starts hitting US banks prompting “The Bank Run We Knew So Little About.”

This is not to say that the financial crises was caused by drug money – it wasn’t. All those crazy mortgages and masses of consumer debt created a house of cards that was teetering away. But it could be that the sudden end to access of vast billions of Latin America drug money did tip the system over the edge.

I say this because here in Canada we have a government that not only does not believe in harm reduction as an effective way to deal with the drug problem, but it intends to pursue a prison focused US style approach to crime that even the most ardent US conservatives are calling a failure. And why does this matter? I mention the above stories because it is worth noting the size, scope and complexity of problem with face. This is a structural, systemic problem, not something that is going to be solved by throwing an additional 1,000 or even 100,000 people in jail. $378B. Through one bank. One third of Mexico’s GDP. And that’s all just pure profit. That’s probably 80 times more than we spend on fighting the war on drugs every year. Through one bank.

And, as the US authorities appear to have demonstrated it may be that the only thing more expensive than losing the war on drugs is winning a major battle – as apparently that can throw the entire global financial system into disarray. So if we think that upping the amount we spend on this war by $1B or even $10B is going to make a lick of difference, we’ve got another thing coming. But I suppose in the mean time, it will secure a few votes.

Conservative Senator Talks Harm Reduction

First, for those who have not seen it Maxine Davis, Executive Director of the Dr. Peter Foundation has an important op-ed in the Vancouver Sun titled Attention Ottawa: Insite is a health care service.

More intriguing Safe Games 2010 and the Keeping the Door Open Society (which, for full disclosure, I sit on the board of) are hosting a panel discussion on harm reduction. One of the speakers will be Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, who sits as a Conservative and has been deeply supportive of harm reduction strategies generally and the four pillars strategy specifically here in Vancouver.

For those in Vancouver who are interested in the event – details below. Hope to see you there.

Keeping the Door Society and SafeGames 2010

invite you to attend

Global Insite – A panel discussion and public dialogue on Vancouver’s

innovative response to the international question of What to do About Drugs?

WHEN:

Friday 19th February 2010

7.00 pm – 9.00 pm; doors open 6.30 pm

WHERE:

Japanese Language Hall

487 Alexander Street @ Jackson Street / Vancouver

SPEAKERS

  • DR. ETHAN A. NADELMANN Executive Director, Drug Policy Alliance; New York
  • SENATOR PIERRE CLAUDE NOLIN, Senate of Canada; Ottawa
  • LIZ EVANS Executive Director, Portland Hotel Society; Vancouver
  • DONALD MACPHERSON Co-founder, Canadian Drug Policy Consortium; Vancouver
  • SHARON MESSAGE Past President, Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users; Vancouver
  • TARA LYONS Executive Director, Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy; Canada
  • GILLIAN MAXWELL (mc) Project Director, Keeping the Door Open Society, Vancouver

Please join us to hear a panel of experts discuss the Canadian Government’s recent announcement that it will continue its efforts to close down Insite – North America’s only legal supervised injection site.  We invite you to participate in the dialogue that will follow.

The Canadian Government's War on Science

For those who did not catch this excellent piece in the Toronto Star I encourage you to take a look.

During the Bush era the Canadian war on science was an embarrassing side show to that of its more wildly offensive southern neighbour which regularly silenced scientists, withheld reports, or simply appointed “expert” panels whose credentials were dubious but whose members could be counted on to produce the “right” answer. Indeed, these sad events are well chronicled in Politics And Science In The Bush Administration drafted for Representative Henry Waxman. (This, as an aside, is what happens when you give elected representatives real research budgets – they look into all sorts of issues to keep the government of the day honest. A similar study by a Canadian MP would have stretched their resources beyond their limit).

But just in case you think the Canadian context is radically different, remember that our government has installed unqualified dependents of the oil industry to government scientific bodies. It has censored government scientists, preventing them from talking about their research at scientific conferences. It has barred officials from talking about climate change or harm reduction strategies for drug users. (It even banned one public servant from talking about a fictional book he”d written on climate change). It also disingenuously claims “more research is needed” on issues and then either cuts research programs that look into these questions or attempt to manipulate the process to produce outcomes that align with what they already believe (see the above Toronto Star piece).

This is the sad state of science and policy development in Canada. We alone in the world retain a government that is not interested in uncovering what is actually happening, but in fabricating a reality that conforms to an ideologically pre-determined world view. Our government’s two great allies, the Bush administration in the United States and the John Howard’s government in Australia, have moved on.

Today science is regaining its rightful place in the policy development process as evidenced by Obama’s inauguration speech:

The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act—not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.

The mention is short and quick, but it was a powerful signal that, for scientists, the Bush era was over. Suddenly science mattered again in the United States. For the Canadian government this line is still more ominous. Their war on science can no longer hide in the shadow of Bush. And none to soon. As a believer in the power of effective public policy the undermining of science has been an attack on the effectiveness of good government. If our government doesn’t believe in science, how are we then to measure success, on what basis are we to decide which policies are more effective?

Oh, and don’t think the world isn’t noticing. You really have to work extra hard to prompt the world’s preeminent scientific journal – Nature – to write a special oped about how your government has become anti-science.

A couple of other fun links regarding our government’s war on science:

Tony Clement, who happily is not longer the Canadian Minister of Health received a swift rebuke for accusing doctors that work at Insite of being unethical.

Gary Goodyear Canada’s Scientific Minister is a creationist. Best response to this sad state of affairs is the incredulous Brian Alters, founder and director of the Evolution Education Research Centre at McGill University in Montreal. He noted this is akin to asking someone “‘Do you believe the world is flat?’ and he doesn’t answer on religious grounds…”

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.”

Articles I'm Digesting 24/4/2009

Here are some pieces from around the web that I’ve been digesting this week.

Why the bluster has given way to bland by Patrick Brethour in the Globe and Mail

This excellent article summarizes what I think is the most exciting trend in BC right now – the race for the pragmatic centre in our politics. Those from outside BC often fail to understand its politics (if I’d got a nickel in college for every time I was asked: how can the same people vote for the NDP provincials and The Reform Party federally???). This piece goes some way in explaining the province’s political history to those not from here.

Also of note… despite the claims of some reformers, British Columbia has already experiment with a Single Transferable Vote (STV). In twice in 1952 (the first election generated an unstable government that lasted 9 months) with the Social Credit Party winning out both times. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t discuss electoral reform, but let us not pretend that it is something untried and completely novel.

Clinton says US shares responsibility for Mexico’s drug violence by By Warren P. Strobel in the Christian Science Monitor

This isn’t a fancy or insightful piece – but it is important. For the first time in memory a senior figure in the US administration has said what everybody has long known, that:

“Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade. Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians,”

The war on drugs is now so deeply a part of the American political way of life I have little hopes of seeing a dramatic shift anytime soon (no matter how good or accurate the movie Traffic was). Nonetheless, this is a critical step. More importantly, it starts the US down a path where discussions around address addiction as well as curbing and managing demand become more plausible strategies.

As many of you know, I’m sadly confident we are never going to “win” the war on drugs and drug violence, especially by curbing supply – indeed, as I wrote the other week, not even the RCMP believes this anymore. This is what makes strategies like Harm Reduction, and places like the Insite injection site so important. They don’t replace policing and prevention, but as the last 40 years have helped demonstrate, progress will be impossible if harm reduction is not part of the mix.

hbus, the transit day tripper by Holly Gordon in The Coast

He’s a great little story about a scrappy programmer in Halifax who is trying to build a parallel – and better – transit route planner on line. Cities should be begging for people like William Lachance – the create of hbus.ca beta – which “scrapes” bus information from the official site and repackages it in a more helpful and useful way. Imagine that – a citizen helping the city deliver a service more effectively!

Sadly, the City of Halifax doesn’t see it that way:

“We can’t give our information out for somebody else to put up and run their own Metro Transit trip planning because we ultimately are accountable for it,” she explains.

This concern is of course, nonsense. By her logic, she should be preventing someone from calling a friend and asking them to look at the bus schedule and telling them when the next bus will come because… well now that friend “controls” the data and not the City of Halifax. This really is 19th century thinking run amok.

Of course ask William what responses he gets and you hear a slightly different answer:

“You get one of two responses,” says Lachance of Metro Transit’s replies to his friend’s—and later his own—requests. “One is just ‘no.’ The other one is that they give you their policy on the dissemination of geographical data, something on the order of ‘give us a lot of money and we’ll give you the information you can basically only use for personal use.'”

While both responses sound different, they are functionally the same. “We, the city, will not give you data your taxes paid to create.” Why? Because we don’t want to, or… because we think we can extract still more money from you. This despite the fact that most local governments actually lose money trying to sell their data. Heavens forbid that actual citizens try to make their city easier to navigate.

The No-Stats All-Star by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Magazine

This is one of these delightfully insightful pieces about how really digging into the numbers can reveal truths that often go unseen. Here is the story of Shane Battier, an NBA player who is relatively unknown and whose basics stats suggest is an ordinary player. And yet… dig a little deeper and it is reveal that when he is playing the stats of players on his team are better, and those of players on opposing teams are worse.

Battier clearly has some basketball styled “soft” skills that make him effective, but that would likely be ignored or remain unseen to the majority of sport’s scouts and observers.

I’ll admit, one reason I really enjoyed this story is that I think there is a little bit of Battier in all of us, and in certain special people around us. There are people in my life who are like Shane Battier, I perform better, react faster, think more clearly, when they are around me. In addition, I’d like to think that there are boards I’m on, people I work with that, while no one can say “yeah, David is excellent at doing that” that nonetheless I help the group work more effectively… Indeed, I often fear this is most of what my professional life is like – that I help everywhere, but in a way that is to hard to pin down in manner that is tangible or recognizable.

RCMP and Vatican: The downfall of hierarchical and opaque organizations

I’m on the road which is basically the only time I watch TV news and was pleased that I did this evening since I caught Terry Milewski’s excellent follow up piece on the how the RCMP has dealt (or in this case, not dealt) with investigating its own officers over the death of Polish traveler Robert Dziekanski.

The thing that really struck me about Milewski’s story was how much it appeared to suggest that the RCMPs method for dealing with problematic individuals parallels that of the Vatican’s. In the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s the Vatican regularly moved priests it knew was molesting children from diocese to diocese. Priests like Father John Gagan, who molested dozens and dozens of people were never suspended or ordered to take treatment. They were simply shuffled around and the problem was covered up.

The retired RCMP officers in Milewski’s piece suggest that a similar practice occurs within the RCMP. For example, one of the officers involved in the death of Robert Dziekanski, Corporal Benjamin Robinson (who subsequently, has allegedly been involved in a drinking and driving incident which resulted in a death and in which he fled the scene) has apparently experienced a number of challenges in his previous posts. The point here is not to assess Corporal Robinson, but a system that promoted and moved him around rather than offer him needed support.

What is most scary for Canadians is that the RCMP does not appear to understand how quickly the public’s loss of faith could grow and thus manifest into a real crises of confidence in the organization. Consider the recent past of RCMP scandals:

In isolation, each scandal is not a problem. Collectively, given people’s capacity to use the internet to create coalitions and mobilize, resistance to bureaucratic, authoritarian and opaque institutions can crystallize very, very quickly.

Clay Shirky offers one of the best examples of this in his book, Here Comes Everybody where he talks about the rise of Voice of the Faithful – a catholic protest group formed in reaction to the pedophile priest scandal in 2002. Here is Shirky discussing the issue in an interview:

Because in 2002, Father John Gagan, a pedophile priest in Boston, was brought to trial and The Boston Globe covered the story. And during the course of this trial and then the subsequent outrage, this little group formed in a basement in January, called Voice of the Faithful. It was basically outraged Catholics who wanted to do something.

By that summer, they went from 30 people in a church basement to 25,000 members in 21 countries around the world. Now, groups don’t grow that fast, or they didn’t prior to the Internet.

And one of the really remarkable things that I think demonstrated how quickly the Catholic outrage solidified into this reaction – and Voice of the Faithful was instrumental in both changing Vatican policy but also getting several high-level bishops and archbishops to resign their posts because of the bad handling of the pedophile scandal.

The Catholic Church very much wanted to say, this is a one-off. This is an unusual case. But, in fact, almost exactly 10 years before, in 1992, something almost identical happened. In that case, the priest’s name was Porter. But it took place in the same diocese in Massachusetts. Bishop Law was the same person in charge. The Boston Globe was the same newspaper reporting.

But in that case, it just blew over. Part of the difference between ’92 and 2002, which is to say, between failure to reform the Church and at least partial success in reforming the Church, is that in ’92 The Boston Globe wasn’t really global. It was a local paper. There was no way for coverage in the Boston area to suddenly become of global importance.

The other part of the story is that it isn’t just about consuming media. It’s actually about doing something about it. Everybody who read about Voice of the Faithful in one of these stories could join online, they could make a donation immediately, and that changed from a big gap between thought and action in ’92 to a very small gap between thought and action in 2002.

Canadians are increasingly losing faith in the RCMP. And much like many Boston Catholics lost faith in the Vatican, they should be. It is an organization fraught with challenges, that has little, or at least very poor, civilian oversight.

The problem for the RCMP is that, increasingly, Canadians have the capacity to mobilize over this issue and the organization’s response to challenges to its authority have not been well received. Today, a rag tag and splintered group of people ranging from anti-rape activists, first nation advocates, the polish community, human and citizen right advocates and harm reduction advocates could be the proverbial 30 people in a basement Shirky talks about in his Voice of the Faithful example. When those concerned with the RCMP coalesce, it may appear to happen quickly and grow exponentially. My hope remains that the RCMP addresses its issues before this happens. My fear, is that without pressure, it won’t.

Ultimately, authoritarian and opaque institutions such as the RCMP and the Vatican will continue to have relevance in a world of networked enabled citizens, but I suspect that their freedom to operate unobserved and unquestioned will become increasingly constrained. Another painful transition is ahead, but one that is long overdue and necessary.

Why Insite Matters

insiteFor those who have not seen it there is a stunning piece on the 5th Estate about Insite – the Supervised Injection Site in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver – where TV cameras are allowed inside the facility for the first time.

I wish I could embed the video in this blog post and walk you through it, but sadly the CBC doesn’t allow me to do this. To view the piece you have to go to the 5th Estate’s website.

The piece is long, so below I recommend some specifics point that touched me. You can scroll directly to them:

02:20 – A basic video walk through of Insite that explains, plainly how it works.

04:15 –  Interview with Darwin Fisher – the Insite intake manager – who shares with us the logic of Insite. In short, the facility connects some of the most marginalized citizens with society, giving us an opportunity to provide them with services, develop relationships, and keep the door open to the possibility of getting into detox programs.

09:58 – An interview with a user – David Brodrick – who talks about why he uses Insite and his desire to respect his community. Insite’s critics sometimes want us to forget these people are humans – living in our own backyard – this clip makes that impossible to do.

25:09 – A discussion about how the Federal Government is trying to shut Insite down and how four successive Vancouver Mayors – from across the political spectrum – are supportive, along with the community, local business and the BC Government (who funds it).

31:00 – It is hard not to be blunt here. But for those who don’t support Insite, are you prepared to tell this person, their friends, and their family, that you believe their addiction comes from a moral failing and that they should either go into detox right now, or die on the streets of Vancouver? Without Insite, this is essentially the choice we are putting before people like David. Insite is not the solution, but it is a step in the process that helps us address the problem.

My only critique of the piece is that it opens by stating Insite is experimental and controversial. This language that perpetuates a false story. Insite is no longer experimental. It is a piece of the healthcare system in Vancouver that is proven – in peer reviewed medical journals – to be an effective way to save lives. Moreover, it is proven, by a federal government report, to save taxpayers’ money. Finally, in Vancouver, Insite is not controversial. It enjoys overwhelming support, among business leaders, community groups, within conservative and liberal political parties and among the public at large. Insite – and harm reduction strategies – are about as controversial in the lower mainland as public transit. The debate isn’t about whether it should exist, but how we can do more of it.

If you are intersted in supporting Insite – consider visiting this website.