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Council votes to endorse decriminalization of drug use

By admin | August 31, 2010

National Post

Council votes to endorse decriminalization of drug use

Zoe McKnight
August 26, 2010 – 9:33 pm

Toronto City Council voted to endorse the Vienna Declaration on Thursday, raising a loud voice against the war on drugs.

“The war against drugs has failed,” said city councillor Kyle Rae, who brought the declaration to council after attending the AIDS 2010 international conference this July, where it was announced. “In every jurisdiction and in every community, we know that policing this issue is not enough.”

The principles of the declaration favour a public health approach to dealing with drug addicts, rather than enforcing ever-stricter drug laws, which advocates say doesn’t work, and in fact can cause greater harm.

“Just as clearly as we know HIV is the cause of AIDS, we know the war on drugs doesn’t achieve its stated objectives and contributes to a range of harms, including the spread of HIV,” said Dr. Evan Wood, a research physician who studies infectious disease at the University of British Columbia, and who chaired the writing committee.
Each HIV patient costs the Canada health-care system $250,000, Dr. Wood said.

“The Canadian health-care system is groaning under the weight of the downstream consequences of drug addiction and our real bumbling policies to address it,” he said.

A public health approach to addiction typically includes methadone clinics, safe injection or consumption sites, and the decriminalization of drugs, as recommended by the United Nations and World Health Organization.

“We know, using the U.S. as a case study, that about $2.5-trillion has been spent trying to reduce the supply of drugs in the States. Despite that effort, drugs are more freely and easily available than they have been at any time in our history,” Dr. Wood said. “The purity has gone up, the price has gone down. Basically, every indicator shows that the problem is getting worse. Huge sums of money have been spent on tough-on-drugs approaches like our being proposed by our federal government.”

Dr. Wood acknowledged Toronto’s endorsement could “release a hornet’s nest of controversy.” A feasibility study on a safe consumption site in Toronto erupted in controversy when it was announced last year, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said he wants to shut down Insite, Vancouver’s safe injection site. This month, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day faced criticism for his $9-billion plan to build more prisons in Canada. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson announced new police powers to crack down on organized crime like gambling, drugs and prostitution, including tighter parole and bail restrictions, and harsher minimum sentences for drug trafficking.

But the Vienna Declaration is a movement to end all that. It reads:

“The criminalisation 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.”

Dr. Wood said that the purpose is to encourage an approach that uses the evidence collected by criminologists, scientists, doctors and economists to assess how drug laws affect other social policies.

“If we realize the overemphasis on law enforcement doesn’t achieve its stated objectives, contributes to a range of harms and basically wastes taxpayers’ dollars, then we need a complete paradigm shift,” he said. “Drug law enforcement displaces public health approaches and drives people to the margins of society where HIV is spread, overdoses happen, violence happens.”

Portugal decriminalized drug use ten years ago and today has the lowest rate of cannabis use in the EU and lower overdose and HIV infection rates.

Holland, which has famously lax drug laws, has a lower marijuana consumption rate than Canada, Dr. Wood said.

There are jurisdictions that are beginning to realize that throwing hundreds of billions of dollars, over the last 20 years, at policing this issue, has tragically failed. There needs to be other approaches, Mr. Rae said.

But embracing the Vienna Declaration does not mean Toronto is any closer to its own safe consumption site, said Councillor Gord Perks, chair of the Toronto Drug Strategy board.

It’s a declaration, not a prescription,² Mr. Perks said. It would simply reinforce the existing Toronto Drug Strategy. For example, Public Health workers already hand out safe crack kits to prevent the spread of hepatitis and have numerous other programs for drug users.

Mr. Rae said he had not heard from Toronto police or city councils in other cities today after the 33-7 vote was announced.

In September, Dr. Wood and his colleagues plan to send letters to political figures around the world to ask them for an endorsement as well. The Declaration was drafted by international scientists and experts and has been endorsed by more than 16,000 people including some Nobel laureates, UN special envoy Stephen Lewis and the former presidents of Colombia, Brazil and Mexico.

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