Dr. Scott Hadland: War on drugs worsens our health and safety

published on August 21, 2012 by Scott Hadland in The Province

More than 40 years after U.S. president Richard Nixon launched the global “war on drugs” – with a bill to U.S. taxpayers of more than $1 trillion spent on the criminalization of drug producers, traffickers, and consumers – illegal drugs remain freely available worldwide to those who seek them. Here in Canada, matters are no better.

A report published last week in The American Journal on Addictions reveals that illicit drugs are readily available on the streets of Vancouver. In the study, which was conducted by the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, more than 80 per cent of adult drug users reported that they could access heroin, crack, and cocaine within just 10 minutes. Particularly concerning was that more than half of adolescent and young adult drug users said they were able to access heroin, crack, cocaine, crystal methamphetamine or marijuana just as quickly.

These results should raise alarms and call for an urgent impact assessment of the war on drugs. Youth are among the most vulnerable to the consequences of drug use, which interferes with normal development, education, employment, and integration into society, further placing them at risk of homelessness, poverty and prostitution. Intravenous injection of drugs, including many of those considered in the study, also places young people at risk of fatally overdosing or acquiring HIV.

As a British Columbian and pediatrician, I have seen firsthand the tolls – medical, psychological and economic – that drugs have on young people. Yet despite this persistent threat to public health and safety in Canada, our national approach to drug control remains oblivious to its own failure, with vast funding allotted to expensive and ineffective drug law enforcement efforts to the detriment of evidence-based prevention and treatment services. When the Office of the Auditor General of Canada last examined the national drug strategy, it found that 93 per cent of federal funding was dedicated to law enforcement and noted: “Of particular concern is the almost complete absence of basic management information on spending of resources, on expectations and on results of an activity that accounts for almost $500 million each year.”

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