Old war on drug abuse needs a new direction

It’s the definition of insanity — repeating the exact same behaviour time and time again, expecting different results.

It’s the definition of insanity — repeating the exact same behaviour time and time again, expecting different results.

This would be the war on drugs. The current approach to illegal drugs — essentially prohibition — has consumed billions of dollars, yet access to illicit, ever-cheaper street drugs and the impact of drug addiction on this community and thousands of others continues to consume more and more resources, and people.

This failure has begun to be noticed by many people here and around the world.

In a longer than usual debate last week, Red Deer city council decided to ignore recommendations from its crime prevention advisory committee, choosing instead to support an entirely different approach to illicit drug use.

It was a split vote — hopefully it doesn’t also split the community.

Mayor Morris Flewwelling, Councillors Cindy Jefferies, Paul Harris, Dianne Wyntjes and Lynne Mulder voted in favour of supporting the Vienna Declaration. Councillors Chris Stephan, Tara Veer, Buck Buchanan and Frank Wong voted against it.

Don’t anyone panic. You won’t see much change in Red Deer regarding the current approach to illicit drug use.

Council’s vote to support the Vienna Declaration was the easy part. The hard part will take years to implement, by way of changing the current widely held (but ineffective) mindset that illicit drugs should be treated with the ideology of prohibition, enforcement and incarceration.

City council also endorsed the development of a specific drug strategy in the city that focuses on the four pillars approach — prevention, treatment, harm reduction and enforcement.

The Vienna Declaration essentially calls for a science-based approach to drug policy — and looks at illegal drug use as a health and safety issue.

“The criminalization of illicit drug users is fuelling the HIV epidemic and has resulted in overwhelmingly negative health and social consequences. A full policy reorientation is needed,” say the declaration.

It goes on: the illicit drug market is worth an estimated US$320 billion annually — profits outside government control — and fuels crime, violence and corruption in countless communities, and destabilizes entire countries such as Columbia, Mexico and Afghanistan.

The declaration — adopted at last year’s international AIDS conference in Vienna — calls for a transparent view of current drug policies’ effectiveness, a science-based public health approach to deal with individual and community harms from illegal drug use.

There’s more, but perhaps what may be most meaningful today in Red Deer is this part: “. . . involve members of the affected community in developing, monitoring and implementing services and policies that affect their lives.”

Yes, having a conversation with those in this community who use, abuse and are addicted to illicit drugs would be a good starting point to begin to change how we can effectively deal with the problem.

The declaration acknowledges that the science-based approach won’t eliminate drug use or related drug-injection problems but it would allow the huge dollars spent now on fighting illicit drug use to be redirected to “evidence-based prevention, regulatory, treatment and harm reduction interventions.”

Those involved in forming the Vienna Declaration included a committee of more than 30 drug policy, health and human rights experts. The declaration focuses on drug users, not those who sell or produce illegal drugs.

In Canada, the cities of Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria — and now Red Deer — have publicly declared support for the Vienna Declaration.

One member of Red Deer council, Chris Stephan, felt the support would bring shame on council because the declaration supports decriminalizing drug users.

“It’s a slap in the face to personal accountability, responsibility, to being a good citizen,” Stephan said at council.

Yet, after over 40 years, the current approach to drug users has failed.

So the answer is to criminalize drug users? To build more prisons to house them? In prisons where illicit drug use and the spread of HIV is common.

“Data from Portugal, the Netherlands, Switzerland and other settings suggest that public health-oriented illicit drug policies have resulted in positive and sustained reductions in a variety of harms from drug use,” states the Vienna Declaration committee on its website.

To argue the war on drugs has been successful is like arguing that organized crime hasn’t earned a nickle from it.

Council’s decision to support the Vienna Declaration is a brave one.

Mary-Ann Barr is the Advocate’s assistant city editor. She can be reached by email at barr@bprda.wpengine.com or by phone at 403-314-4322.

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