One of the most dangerous men in America zipped across the Canadian border last week to deliver a speech in Ottawa. John Walters, chief propagandist for the disastrous US war on drugs, praised Stephen Harper’s plan to put more drug offenders in jail. He also lauded George Bush for pushing random drug testing in American schools. As Walters spoke, US police continued to round up drug users. In the land of the free, someone is arrested on drug charges every 20 seconds. No wonder two million Americans are in jail, the highest rate of imprisonment in the world. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 60 percent of American inmates are black or Latino, an astonishing figure because these groups make up only a quarter of the US population. Black men are arrested at a rate seven times higher than American white men thanks largely to the war on drugs. “The human costs—wasted lives, wrecked families, troubled children—are incalculable,” Human Rights Watch says.
Unfortunately, Canada continues to wage its own drug war, pissing away about $2.5 billion every year arresting, prosecuting and jailing drug offenders. And all the while, drug use continues to climb. In 1994, 28.5 percent of Canadians reported having consumed illegal drugs. A decade later, that figure had jumped to 45 percent. Those stats are contained in a report published in January by medical researchers at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. It criticizes Canadian authorities for relying so heavily on law enforcement to stop drug use. It also points out that numerous studies have shown the RCMP schools program called DARE (drug abuse resistance education) is useless in persuading young people to say no to drugs. The RCMP website boasts that DARE is now offered to grade five and six students in more than 50 Nova Scotia schools. “The only statistically relevant trends show that those who receive the DARE program tend to be more likely to use drugs,” says Dr. Evan Wood, one of the report’s authors. “That’s an obvious example of the federal government taking taxpayers’ money and flushing it down the toilet.”
The report says that instead of punishing users, Canada should be financing programs that reduce harm such as clean needle exchanges and supervised injection sites like the one in Vancouver. Dr. Wood says studies published in leading medical journals show the Vancouver site provides real benefits including reducing the risk of HIV infections. “Unfortunately, the federal government, in particular Stephen Harper, has chosen to ignore that research and play politics in favour of a law and order agenda,” he says. “That will be disastrous for Canadians given what has been seen in the US when you try to apply minimum mandatory sentences and other blunt tools against drug use.”
The BC report points to numerous studies which show that trying to cut off the supply of drugs by seizing shipments and arresting dealers has been “consistently ineffective.” It’s a point that’s underlined in a powerful film to be broadcast nationally this Saturday at 7pm on Global TV. Damage Done: The Drug War Odyssey was written and directed by Halifax filmmaker Connie Littlefield. It tells the stories of Canadian and American police officers who’ve concluded that the war on drugs does far more harm than good. For one thing, it gives violent criminals a monopoly on the distribution and sale of illicit substances. The officers (some still working, others retired) are members of LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. LEAP maintains that the war on drugs has hurt the reputation of police forces everywhere. Yet, police and politicians can’t get off the drug-war treadmill.
“It’s almost like some kind of group-think has taken hold that we can’t seem to shake free of,” Littlefield says. “I think if there were more people alive who remembered alcohol prohibition, we’d be better off because people who lived through that have an understanding that prohibition basically doesn’t work.”
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