Anti-drug plan criticized for stress on punishment

By Andrew Perez

The Conservative government’s new anti-drug strategy announced in early October places too much importance on punishment and not enough on prevention, say drug addiction service professionals in Ottawa.

The new strategy, touted by the government as a balance between prevention and punishment, is yet another failed attempt at tackling Canada’s drug problem, says Yvon Lemire, director of addiction and problem gambling services at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre.

Lemire says the new federal strategy does not place enough importance on prevention and harm reduction, but has instead poured $21.6 million to fund the “war on drugs.”

“If we want to really improve the collective health of society, we need to put more emphasis on two key pillars of drug strategy which are prevention and harm reduction,” Lemire says.

“We have been spending billions of dollars on law enforcement since the Nixon era and yet how much of a difference has that made on the availability of drugs on the street?”

Lemire says some enforcement capacity is still needed, but the current government has instead adopted a “let’s punish the bad guys” approach to law enforcement.

Paul Welsh, executive director of the Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services Clinic, says he is not surprised by the current government’s approach to crime. He says successive governments at both the federal and provincial level have either ignored drug-addiction problems or misdiagnosed them as a crime problem instead of a health-related problem.

“Crime is simply the symptom of an untreated addiction,” says Welsh. “Addictions in Canada go untreated because there aren’t enough treatment spaces, it’s that simple.”

Welsh also disagrees with the government’s intention to introduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug traffickers and producers. He says the policy is a backwards approach that lacks flexibility and often fails to rehabilitate the individual in question.

But Welsh says while the new strategy has many weaknesses, he commends the current government for at least releasing a strategy aimed at curbing drug addictions.

“I don’t want to be too negative about this; anything is better than nothing and we’ve had nothing for a long long time,” Welsh says.

When it comes to Ottawa’s drug problems, both Lemire and Welsh say the new federal strategy will likely do little to prevent drug problems unique to Ottawa.

Lemire says Ottawa has a well-documented crack problem in the market-area. He says the vast majority of drug users downtown are both mentally ill and homeless. Addressing this problem, he says, will involve not only an addiction strategy, but a housing and mental illness strategy.

“Until the federal government works hand in hand with the provincial and municipal governments to come up with a housing and mental illness strategy, the problems in the market-area will remain,” says Lemire.

Welsh echoes this sentiment. He says more often than not, the federal government isolate drug-related problems as a law enforcement issue, but fails to recognize that homelessness, mental illness, and drug addiction are all interrelated.

When contacted, the Department’s of Health and Public Safety said they could not comment on the new drug strategy until further details had been released from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

However, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, Chris Girouard, said the provincial and municipal governments will play a meaningful role in implementing the plan.

He says the government will commit to community-based prevention strategies and provide resources and tools to parents, educators, and health-care professionals to prevent drug-use as part of a multi-year awareness campaign.