Al Pope, August 22, 2008
Writing their own rules: Conservatives on drugs
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Last week an on-line reader pointed out that Nordicity’s central metaphor – the war in Afghanistan’s poppy addiction – unfairly maligned heroin addicts. In particular, he took exception to the statement, “like any junkie … there is little to which (the war) will not stoop”.
To be frank, the notion that you can’t trust an addict wasn’t backed by one speck of research on the subject. It sprang from popular culture – from movies like Trainspotting and Panic in Needle Park, as well as from word-of-mouth reports from former addicts. For all I know, the junkie’s legendary untrustworthiness is no more than a legend.
By coincidence, a few days after the offending column appeared the Canadian Conservative party was doing a bit of addict-bashing of its own, plastering urban ridings with ads declaring "Junkies and pushers don't belong near children and families. They should be in rehab or behind bars." Meanwhile Health Minister Tony Clement scolded Canadian doctors for their “unethical” support of harm reduction measures, especially safe-injection sites.
Earlier this month Clement shocked participants at the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City by attacking Vancouver’s InSite, Canada’s only safe-injection sight. “Allowing and/or encouraging people to inject heroin into their veins is not harm reduction, it is the opposite”, Clement told reporters, contradicting the World Health Organization position, and decades of international research.
In April the government released a report, financed by Clement’s own department, in which Neil Boyd, Professor of Criminology at Simon Fraser University, found that InSite is cost-effective, popular with local businesses, citizens, and police, and that it reduces street crime, saves lives, and helps direct addicts toward treatment.
Since InSite opened in 2003, staff have successfully intervened in 868 overdoses. Public education programs at InSite have led to a 33% increase in use of addiction treatment programs. The number of people not infected with HIV/AIDS as a result of safe injection practices is impossible to calculate, but the site is responsible for a marked reduction in high-risk behaviours.
Boyd’s findings are in line with studies conducted in the Netherlands and Australia, where crime was found to be reduced in the area surrounding safe-injection sites, and local support for the sites was high. How can the elected head of Canada’s health system take such a firm stand against all the facts? When every study shows that harm reduction programs work, why are the Conservatives on a campaign to replace them with harsh punishments that do no good at all?
Only two reasonable answers present themselves: it’s either ideology or opportunism – or some curious admixture of the two. It’s not hard to believe that Clement and his boss hate “junkies and pushers” with a religious fervor that is unaffected by the facts. Nor would it strain credulity to suggest that Conservative strategists have picked on get-tough-on-crime gimmicks as their wedge issue in what is beginning to look like a fall election.
The CPC pamphlet reads, “Thugs, drug pushers and others involved in the drug trade are writing their own rules. For too long, lax Liberal governments left gangs and drug pushers to make their own rules and set their own criminal agenda. Those days are over." It presents pictures of the party leaders and asks which is “on track to fight crime”.
In truth, it’s the Conservatives who are making up the rules. Closing down InSite, makes about as much sense as the rest of their get-tough-on-crime agenda. It defies the evidence, but appeals to their core support. It demonizes Canadians who suffer from a particular health problem, and takes away one of the few facilities that is helping to control both the disease and its social side-effects.
As for last week’s column, stereotyping drug addicts made a handy vehicle for a metaphor about the war, but that’s all it meant. It may have given offense to individuals who don’t fit the pattern, but it’s much worse if it perpetuated the myths that Clement and Harper are trying to exploit. For the record, if I had to choose who to trust, a heroin addict or the Harper Conservatives, I’d pick the junkie every time.