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Monday, January 15, 2007

Dare a different approach to drugs

When I was a kid we used to have police officers come into our school to talk to us about drugs. Us kids loved the occassions because it meant some time off from regular studies, and we could all get a good laugh about how little the cops really knew about drugs. And we’d often celebrate afterwards by slipping out into the school parking lot to share a fatty.
When I was 14 my Dad, who was convinced I was doing drugs, even though I’d never even seen them, sent me to see a movie called Riot on Sunset Strip. The movie had been reccomended to my Dad by local narcotics officers. I went to see the movie, which featured young adults smoking joints and floating around rooms, or eating LSD and having sex. Most of us kids attending that movie left the theatre wanting to try drugs. Hell, if drugs helped you defy gravity and made it easy to get sex, then why not.
It also played well into our teenage rebellion, if the cops, the teachers, and our parents were all against this stuff, then it must be good. As kids, we were also quite bright and could easily see the hypocracy. We all saw our folks stepping out and getting drunk from time to time while telling us we couldn’t drink. Most kids I know, including myself, set out at an early age to try booze. We all wanted to get drunk, mostly because we were being told we shouldn’t.
I knew a lot of kids who got into drugs, but before they got into illicit drugs, they tried alcohol, the only legitimate drug that really affected our minds. For many, most, our gateway drug was alcohol. We moved on from it, looking for highs that weren’t so damaging to our bodies and minds. When the push came to ward us away from the illicit stuff, more and more of us sought them out. If our authority figures were so hell bent against the stuff, it must be good.
Not much has changed. Alcohol is still the first drug most kids try. But alcohol is not such an easy drug to abuse without getting caught. It stinks, it makes you act weird, and it is not so easy to hide. Other drugs, such as THC, LSD, magic mushrooms, even heroin and cocaine, are much easier to disguise. They fold up into nice small packages that can be easily concealed, most have no scent at all, except pot, and unless a teacher or parent is skilled at detecting signs of drug use, it can be quite difficult to tell if a person is high. These drugs are also easily obtained. You meet your dealer in a cafe or a back alley, or out on the street corner. To get alcohol you basically have to hang out by the bar or the liquor store, where you can easily be noticed.
I grew up in the 1960s. Its a whole new century now, and still the police are using outmoded principles and ideology in their attempts to curtail drug use and proliferation. It didn’t work back then, and it isn’t working now. Twelve years ago less than 30 per cent of Canadians acknowledged trying illicit drugs. Today that figure is over 45 per cent, yet the police, who continue to support school programs like DARE, and to spend far more on enforcement than on harm reduction, continue to claim success! Its a sham.
People who abuse drugs and alcohol do so mostly because of social mallais. For instance, my own case. I got into drugs partly because my Dad was always accusing me of doing drugs. At one point I got sick of his accusations and decided to give him something to talk about. There was no communication at home, there was just an iron fist and a lot of preaching. I was in the throes of teenage rebellion and instead of understanding, I was receiving commands.
I was also a bit of a good boy. Yes, I was the kid with morals who’d bought all his Christian upbringing, a goody-two-shoes, so to speak. This made me a bit of a pariah in my youthful social circles. As soon as I tried drugs, that was cured. Suddenly I was popular as school! I was cool.
The other thing drugs and alcohol provided me with was an escape. I could get drunk or high and just forget about all the abuse at home. Under the influence I was transported out of my mundane existance and into a world that was colourful and exciting. Alcohol in particular, helped me to overcome shyness and gave me courage. For all intent and purpose drugs were giving me something I wasn’t getting at home. It didn’t matter if the cop at the front of the class said they were bad, drugs were working for me. They lifted my problems, helped me forget troubling things, made me popular with the other kids, and fullfilled my teenage desire to rebel. The cop at the front of the class just represented another authority figure I was able to baffle.
In the end, alcohol, not illicit drugs, almost killed me. It damaged my liver, removed my friends, lost me several jobs, robbed me of money, took away my self respect, and quite nearly killed me. I’d turned to it, forsaking most other drugs, because it was easier to get, and more acceptable in the society where I lived. I could get drunk and the cops would take me home. If I stuck a needle in my arm I could end up in jail. My original gateway drug eventually turned into my drug of preference.
Just about 18 years ago I gave it up. Not because of any teaching I got in school, not because of pressure from outside sources or family, not because I was afraid of jail time, but because it was killing me and I was ready to quit. At the time I also stopped using any sort of hard drug, including perscription pain killers, mood altering pills and the like. I did this not because of anything I’d been told, or anything I’d learned in school, or any trouble I’d had with the cops. I gave it up because I was ready to give it up, and I wanted to give it up. All the DARE programs in the world had no effect, what did have an effect was my own desire to do right by myself.
The long and short of it is this: Kids get into drugs because they are trying to deal with the issues in their lives. They get into drugs due to peer pressure. They get into drugs for escape. They do this despite the fact that police and other authority figures are constantly telling them they shouldn’t. No amount of badgering ever kept a kid from doing drugs, no threats of imprisonment or even death ever kept a kid from doing drugs. Kids get into drugs because that’s what kids do, they get into things they are not supposed to get into! Telling a two year old not to pull all the pots and pans out of the cupboard is not gong to stop a two year old from pulling all the pots and pans out of the cupboard. And telling a sixteen year old not to smoke pot isn’t going to stop a sixteen year old from smoking pot, in fact, it may well encourage a sixteen year old to smoke pot! Any police officer who stands up and says programs such as DARE work, is lying to his or herself. If anything, such programs only push young people to be more secretive and subversive about their drug use.
Since the 1960s many governments have gone on anti-drug crusades, increasing the number of DARE-type programs, increasing criminal penalties and sentencing for drug possession, and launching all-out anti-drug campaigns, while cutting services and financial aid to poor families, curtailling social services and harm reduction programs, and ignoring all the evidence that such actions do not work.
The USA is the prime example. The so called War On Drugs down there has done nothing to curtail drug use and has served only to increase the number of people incarcerated, so today the US has more of its own citizens in jail, per capita, than any country in the world. Still, the drug trade blossoms, even in the jails!
According to a recent study put out by the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS , of the $368 million spend targetting illicit drugs, 73 per cent goes to law enforcement, and a mere 14 per cent to rehab, and less than three per cent to harm reduction, despite the fact that harm reduction has been proven time and again, here and abroad, to have a positive efffect on reducing the crime associated with drug use, and to increase the number of drug addicts seeking treatment for their addictions. Meanwhile the result of enforcement-based practises has been to increase the number of drug addicts, the level of drug related crime, and the spread of infectious diseases.
In countries were harm reduction, decriminalization, and rehabilitation take a front seat to law enforcement, authorities acknowledge not only a lowering in crime levels, but a reduction in drug usuage, AIDS infection, and an increase in revenues that can be applied towards harm reduction.
In Holland, for example, where soft drugs such as pot and hash have been decriminalized, and coffee shops are allowed to sell small quanitities, authorities report a decrease in the number of new users. At the same time, because of quality control inspections, authorities report less and less health issues related to the sale and consumption of bad drugs, or soft drugs that have been spiked with harder substances. Street dealing is almost non-existant, and revenue available to help combat drugs has increased.
During a visit there last spring, operators of so-called hash bars, told me that 90 per cent of their clientele comes from beyond their borders, and the number of local people using soft drugs has dropped.
Because the soft drug issue is in hand, and because of the revenues created through taxation of the coffee shops, law enforcement and health authorities have been able to focus their attention on the hard drug problem. They have taken a five step program approach to hard drug usuage and prevention. The components of this program include: shelter, income, access to care, daytime activities and safe drug use. If you are caught using hard drugs in Holland you are sent to a clinic. There you receive assistance finding a home, you are assisted with income generation, put in touch with social workers, invited to participate in healthy lifestyle activities, and provided with drugs that are clean and a safe environment and the tools you need to use those drugs. The result has been a dramatic curtailment of hard drug usage, a marked increase in the numbers of addicts seeking treatment, a decrease in criminal activity, a marked decrease in drug related death, and a slowing of the AIDS infection rate, unheard of anywhere else in the world.
According to Dutch government figures, there are between four and five thousand hard drug addicts currently living in Amsterdam Holland. Yet, when you walk the streets of Amsterdam you see little evidence of a drug problem. There are few beggars in the streets, very few pushers, and there is nowhere near the drug related crime that can be witnessed in any major Canadian city. You do not find broken needles on the curbs, people sleeping in back alleys, or dying from overdoses, that you will definitely see in cities such as Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal.
In Vancouver, since 2003, there has been a safe injection site. Businesses located in the area serviced by the safe injection site report a clear reduction in the level of petty crime in the area since the injection site opened. Health officials report a decrease in the number of overdoses and other health related issues in the area. Even some members of the police have come forward to say the site is working. It is saving lives and taxpayer dollars, yet the Government of Canada is waffling on whether to continue funding the site, saying they need more data.
In what I believe is a complete dereliction of their mandate to look out for the health and welfare of the Canadian people, the current Conservative government in Ottawa is pursuing an ideological approach to the issue rather than one of logic and reason. They are continuing to assert they need more proof the centre is doing some good, but what they really seem to be waiting for is some evidence to the contrary. While studies that support the overall effectiveness of the safe injection site, both in terms of health and law enforcement, continue to be released, the government continues to wait for any information that will allow them to close the site down.
What’s worse, is police forces across the country seem to be goose stepping right along with the anti-harm-reduction message. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they continue to claim anti-drug campaigns, such as DARE, are working. During the last federal election the RCMP went so far as to demand the safe injection site be closed. It was an odd interjection by the mounties into public policy, especially considering the RCMP do not play a large role in policing the area where the safe injection site is located, a location which is under the jurisdiction of the Vancouver City Police!
The RCMP seem more intersted in securing funding for programs that all studies show do not work, than they are in the public good. While anti-drug policies clearly are having little effect on curtailing drug usuage, they do make a lot of extra work for policing agencies, and police officers. Its seems Canada’s police forces are more concerned with making sure their members are taking home good paychecks than they are in actually doing something about the problem. Think about it, if police officers are no longer preoccupied chasing around small time drug dealers, then maybe there will be less need for police officers, which would result in less need to finance police departments. If there’s no criminals, there’s no need for cops. It seems cynical, but what other reason can there be for continuing to pursue programs that have been proven time and again to be unproductive and patently useless?
The reality is, if police were less preoccupied with busting grow ops and soft drug users, they would have more time to go after some of the bigger criminals in our society, like the drunken drivers, the fraud artists, corporate criminals, crooked politicians and other villians who do far more damage to our society than the couple smoking a joint in the park.
Canadians like to see themselves as world leaders. We profess a lot of ulturism and progressiveness in our view of the world. It is time we applied some of that leadership, ulturism and progressiveness to drug policy.
These are not strangers who are dying in back alleys, who are overdosing, who are succumbing to AIDS, or going to jail. These are our own sons and daughters, our own fathers and mothers, our own brothers and sisters. They are into drugs because drugs were there for them when we were not. Most of them either come from broken homes or from abusive. They got into drugs because they couldn’t find other ways to deal with their issues. Many followed this path despite the best efforts of the churches, the police, the teachers, and the parents, who told them not to do it. They got into it, but they’ll never get out of it until we start providing the ways and means for them to do so.
Remember the two year old, who would not leave the pots and pans alone, despite the fact you told him no, despite the fact you locked the cupboard doors, no matter how many times you punished him? Eventually he gave up the pots and pans, most often when you found other things for him to do, and when it stopped being such a big issue for you. You talked to him. You provided him with options and he eventually moved on.
We need to apply this same approach to our drug problem, and yes, it is our drug problem, not their drug problem! Not his or her drug problem. It is our drug problem, and all the preaching and and law enforcement in the world isn’t going to resolve it!
Decriminalization, harm reduction, and communication are working in many places. Criminalization, law enforcement, and preaching are not.
When are we going to get it?


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