How to win the drug war
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, October 6, 2008

There’s been little mention in this election campaign of the most pernicious evil of our time. Yet recent reports from a UN agency leave little doubt that the war against drugs is being won and that, with full engagement, victory is if not possible, then very nearly possible.

The World Drug Report 2008 launched in June by the United Nations Office of Drug Control reveals how opium and coca cultivation, whose heroin and cocaine extractions are the scourge of Canada’s inner cities, are now largely confined to rebel-held areas in Aghanistan and Columbia. It also reveals how worldwide deaths from illicit drugs at around 200,000 a year pale in comparison to deaths from legal psychoactive substances such as cigarettes (5 million a year), and alcohol (2.5 million). “The drug problem was dramatically reduced over the past century,” says UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa, “and has stabilised over the past 10 years.”

In other words, prohibition works.

This was apparent when U.S. per capita alcohol consumption dropped from 7.1 gallons to 1.8 gallons a year during the 1920s but the need to control psychoactive substances was apparent well before the American prohibition era. During the 19th century, opium was a lucrative, openly traded commodity. When an epidemic left 25% of the Chinese male population using and tens of millions addicted, the Shanghai Opium Commission successfully assembled world leaders to confront the crisis despite their having vested political and economic interests in the status quo.

We’ve come a long way since then but signs are surfacing that new kinds of vested interests are seizing the drug control agenda. Blogging from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Enquirer, for instance, reveals the menacing ascendance of the medical-industrial complex. Serviced by numerous medical organizations, it works in tandem with a burgeoning poverty industry that DTES residents call the ‘povertariat.’

“Show me a spokesperson touting the success of Insite (the controversial supervised injection site), and I will show you someone economically invested in the medical-industrial complex”, says Reliable Source at the Enquirer. Those profiting “must constantly manufacture case files to attract public funding. The result is a case file economy.” With millions a year available for harm reduction-related initiatives that keep addicts on drugs while purporting to reduce their harm, the attractions of the case file economy are self-evident.

More disturbing is how major steps towards legalising drugs are underway in British Columbia courts where injection of illicit drugs has been made a health issue (the decision is being appealed). As the UN report observes, what damage could drugs cause if they proliferated the way opium did in 19th century China?

“Sweden’s Successful Drug Policy: A Review of the Evidence”, released by UNODC last year lights a clear path forward on this issue.

Sweden’s drug policies were built on the theories of psychiatrist Nils Bejerot. He challenged the view - widely held in Sweden in the sixties when psychoactive drugs were available by presecription as a harm reduction measure - that addiction was a health problem. Deaths in the general population where such lethal substances would inevitably find their way confirmed Bejerot’s argument that addiction was a learned behaviour made possible by the availability of drugs, time, money, user role models and a permissive ideology. This behaviour could be ‘unlearned’, he said; treatment should therefore focus on being drug-free and governments should promote zero tolerance.

Sweden has since adopted the vision of a drug free society. Treatment for addiction is easily obtained and under special circumstances compulsory. Schools teach children about the dangers of drugs from a very early age. Small scale as well as organised crime is prosecuted. The result is drug use figures that routinely score at the bottom of European charts while public safety issues around disease transmission and crime commission remain firmly in control.

The public policy implications in Canada are clear. Daily drug busts demonstrate that Canadian police forces are doing their part to control supply . Their efforts, however, are being undermined by policies which serve the vested interests of the Taliban, drug dealers and Canada’s burgeoning medical-industrial complex while addicts remain victimised - first by their habit and then by those exploiting them.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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