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Vancouver mayor’s drug plan provides the wrong fix

Vancouver Sun, February 15, 2007

Any serious attempt by our civic leaders to tackle Vancouver’s major drug problem deserves at least a round of applause. But the logic behind Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan’s recent foray into the murky field of drug policy appears to be deeply flawed.
Sullivan argues that drug users don’t respond to treatments requiring them to give up drugs. As a result, they continue to be involved in crime to get money for their fix. His solution? Provide 700 crystal meth and cocaine addicts with free, substitute drugs.
Twenty-five years ago, the mayor’s idea might have had some traction. It was in the early 1980s that the concept of “harm reduction” first took root.
Addictions workers feared a plague of HIV/AIDS spread by intravenous drug users into the general population. They began to think it was better to cater to the addicts’ health needs (by offering free needles, for example) than to try to get them to quit using drugs. And, over the years, “harm reduction” became a rigid ideology embedded in drug policy, not just in Canada, but throughout the West.
Its most recent incarnation is Vancouver’s Insite clinic, where addicts receive clean needles and medical assistance to inject their illegal drugs.
Supporters of the clinic are adamant that it has been a success. They are upset that neither the federal government nor the RCMP show any enthusiasm for continuing the experiment.
But there are those within the addictions community who question the continuing emphasis on harm reduction. They believe it is time to reassert prevention as the primary goal.
As professor Neil McKeganey, director of the Centre for Drug Misuse Research at the University of Glasgow, has pointed out, it was never quite clear how harm-reduction strategies were going to achieve “the almost magical aims of both facilitating drug users’ continued drug use . . . and encouraging drug users in becoming drug-free.”
That paradox is at the core of Canada’s inability to develop a coherent policy on drugs.
Harm reduction may be a panacea for existing addicts, but it does nothing to prevent the appearance of new generations of users. It may even do the opposite. Certainly, we have a duty to offer long-term treatment to addicts who want to quit.
And we should concentrate our efforts on warning people, especially young people, about the perils of drugs that are all too readily available.
Instead of offering a free fix to the fallen, Sullivan should be finding ways to safeguard the innocent. What do you think? Leave a brief comment, name and town at: 604-605-2029, fax: 604-605-2099 or e-mail: provletters@png.canwest.com