An international declaration to change the “global war on drugs” approach to a more health-based approach to solving illicit drug use was supported by Red Deer city council on Monday.
Council voted 5-4 in favour of the Vienna Declaration — a document that was made during the International AIDS conference in Vienna, Austria in July 2010 and has since been endorsed by cities like Toronto and Vancouver.
A team of international experts and several of the world’s leading HIV and drug policy scientific bodies called for the declaration after doing extensive consultation in medicine, public policy and public health. They want to see to improve “community health and safety” by ensuring that scientific evidence is added into illicit drug policies.
The proposal is in contrast to what it identifies as an over-abundance of drug law enforcement.
Councillor Chris Stephan said voting in favour of the declaration would “shame council” because it essentially believes in decriminalizing drug users.
“It’s going from the premise of having HIV, which is terrible,” said Stephan, referring to the virus that is seeing increased prevalence in parts of the world due to injection drug use. “The question I have is, what is the impact on drug users and their families, on their relationships? It’s a slap in the face to personal accountability, responsibility, to being a good citizen.”
Councillor Tara Veer agreed with Stephan, saying that the declaration’s message about decriminalization would send a mixed message to RCMP and the community, particularly to children in schools where drug prevention is talked about.
Supt. Brian Simpson of Red Deer city RCMP told council that have an international mandate focusing on law enforcement is good because it sets boundaries.
Even if there is decriminalization of one drug, the criminals will stay in the lifestyle and make money in another area, he added.
The Vienna Declaration called for an acknowledgement of the limits and harms of drug prohibition, and for drug policy reform to remove barriers to effective HIV prevention, treatment and care. It also says that there is no evidence that increasing the ferocity of law enforcement has meaningfully reduced the prevalence of drug use. That data also clearly demonstrates that the number of countries in which people inject illegal drugs is growing, according to the declaration.
Councillor Cindy Jefferies said she supports the declaration because it “calls for a change.”
“I have watched with interest the war with drugs over the years and I believe it’s been a fairly large failure,” said Jefferies.
The city’s Crime Prevention Advisory committee agreed that the intent behind the document has merit, but that the declaration is somewhat vague regarding specific definitions and concepts.
It suggested that the declaration was written in a “general sense to approach the issues surrounding drug policy on more of a national and international level, and is not as relevant for the City of Red Deer working at a local level.”
Mayor Morris Flewwelling, Jefferies and Councillors Paul Harris, Dianne Wyntjes and Lynne Mulder voted in favour of the declaration while Stephan, Veer, and Councillors Buck Buchanan and Frank Wong voted against.
Jennifer Vanderschaeghe, executive director for the Central Alberta AIDS Network Society, said she was pleased with the final result.
“The life of drug users is about health,” she said. “Addiction is a mental health issue. It’s not a criminal issue, first. So when you provide health care to people with addictions, you have a faster return rate on getting them back to where they are stable.”
Council did unanimously support developing a Red Deer specific drug strategy focused on the four pillars of prevention, treatment, harm reduction and enforcement.