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On the benefits of heroin

by Archives September 2, 2008

With a fall election looking more likely every day, the Conservatives are getting tough on drugs, and canceling the few programs that are actually working to deal with them.
After spending the past few years attempting to convince the Canadian public that they are actually centre-right moderates, the Harper government is pulling out the raw meat to throw to the most rabid members of the Reform/Canadian Alliance base. But with dropping crime rates in almost every part of the country the Conservatives are grasping at straws. A year ago the Conservatives introduced their new drug strategy, a $65 million plan that read like something out of the Republican Party playbook. The plan included stiffer jail sentences, increased funding for law enforcement and a television campaign telling kids to “say no to drugs.” But as with abstinence-only sex education the Conservatives offered nothing to help the thousands of Canadians who are already addicted to hard drugs like heroin – except for the possibility of jail time.
Now Conservatives are poised to cancel Insite, the safe injection site in Vancouver’s infamous downtown east side. It’s one of the few programs that has actually had success in mitigating the damage caused by hard drugs.
The problem with the Conservative’s Ronald Reagan approach to drug use is that it ignores one of the key facts that has rendered the so-called “war on drugs” completely unconquerable. The fact is that no matter how many public service announcements warn children that drugs will turn their brains into scrambled eggs and no matter how stiff the mandatory minimum sentence is for those convicted of drug possession, people will continue to use.

One need look no further than our neighbour to the south to see what an abject failure the Reagan approach has been. The United States, despite spending billions of dollars of fighting drugs with police and military force still has one of the highest rates of drug use in the world.
For most people drugs are chemical compounds, which are not inherently evil in themselves, but whose effects on those who use and abuse them are. But for people like Tony Clement it is the drugs themselves that are inherently evil, and for the hard rightwing base of the former Reform/Alliance, sin must be punished. The problem with this irrational view is that the “cure” is worse than the sickness. While we may be taking the high “moral” ground against drugs; drug addicts are overdosing in our streets, catching and spreading HIV in our prisons.
But for health minister Clement drug addicts deserve what they get. People like him worry that without the increased risk of HIV/AIDS, overdose, and hepatitis, heroin addiction might become attractive. As if the unemployment and homelessness that come on the heels of this affliction are not serious enough. He’d rather see Canadians die, and teach them a lesson, then do his job by protecting the Canadian public’s health.
Like the Conservative attitude towards drugs, heroin addiction is not rational. It takes a certain mix of depression and desperation to stick a needle in your own arm searching for a high. People who are in the state need help, not punishment – treatment not incarceration.
Unsurprisingly every other party in the House of Commons has lined up against the Conservatives on this issue.
Liberal Deputy Leader, Michael Ignatieff put it quite well saying, “we believe this is not an ideological question, it’s a scientific question. We take drug addiction very seriously; we don’t condone it. The Insite safe injection sites have proven their worth under careful, controlled circumstances they can save lives, and that’s what it’s about. Mr. Clement thinks it’s an ideological matter, I don’t think it is, I think it’s a public health matter.”
The ravages of heroin, which stalks urban slums across our country, has left Vancouver’s downtown eastside with HIV/AIDS rates comparable to those in sub-Saharan Africa. While AIDS is no more acceptable in Capetown than Vancouver, the Canadian government has a moral imperative and fundamental duty to help fight this disease where it occurs in its own cities.
Obviously the Canadian government’s number one priority should be helping people who wish to get off heroin to kick their habits. But the Canadian government also has a responsibility to those still deep in the throws of addiction.
The Insite safe injection center has had a positive effect on the surrounding community, providing addicts with a safe place to inject, helping to prevent the spread of HIV and other diseases.
Since it opened in 2003, almost 1,000 people have overdosed at the Insite clinic and none of them died. Had those overdoses happened in the street many of them would have been fatal.
Harm reduction facilities are an important first step in getting people off drugs, a first contact point between addicts and the healthcare system, where addicts can access addiction counseling and referrals to detox programs.
Not only have all of Canada’s opposition parties endorsed the harm reduction approach, so has the World Health Organization, the Vancouver police department, the United Nations Joint Program on HIV/AIDS and 80 per cent of medical doctors in Canada.
By putting the possibility of short-term political gain ahead of doing his job, protecting the health and safety of Canadians, Tony Clement has shown that he is the one who is truly unethical.

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