The province's top public-health doctor has slammed Prime Minister Stephen Harper for creating a $64-million drug strategy based on ideology rather than reason. The National Anti-Drug Strategy, announced by Harper on October 4, is heavy on enforcement and includes treatment and prevention, but it leaves out harm reduction, which is controversial among some Christians.
"There's so much evidence supporting harm reduction internationally that to ignore the evidence is evidence of blinkered thinking," pro vincial health officer Perry Kendall told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from Victoria on December 17. "This [dropping harm reduction] was done without consultation with any of the provinces or territories or the people who have been working for 10 years on Canada's Drug Strategy. Harper is using old 'war on drugs' statements like 'The party's over,' which is dis respectful of the expertise of all those who have worked on drug policies. It makes us sound like we're a bunch of dope smokers sitting around making decisions in some backroom."
Kendall pioneered harm-reduction strategies in Canada when he was Toronto's medical officer of health in the late 1980s. Now that all provinces and territories have some form of harm-reduction policy, Kendall said, he's mystified that Harper has ditched it. Insite, Vancouver's safe-injection site, is therefore at risk. Methadone programs and Vancouver's crack-paraphernalia-distribution program are both at risk as well, according to Kendall, as they require federal exemptions under Section 56 of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. In addition, Harper's stance makes vulnerable a proposal that B.C. provide slow-release amphetamines to crystal-meth addicts in a methadone-style program. The City of Victoria, too, plans to request an exemption for a safe-consumption site, he said. All peer-reviewed studies point to the effectiveness of harm reduction, Kendall added.
Meanwhile, the new strategy is couched in conservative Christian language. Leading the quasi-scientific anti–harm-reduction lobby in Canada is former B.C. Conservative MP Randy White. White, who grew up Anglican and attends Catholic services with his wife, is the president of Ottawa-based lobby group the Drug Prevention Network of Canada, which is against harm reduction. When Harper announced the new antidrug strategy, he did so from the Salvation Army in Winnipeg and thanked the Drug Prevention Network for participating in the day's events and discussions. In that speech, he referred directly to the Bible, noting that "the work you do embodies the spirit of the Samaritan in our modern age."
As an election strategy, chatting up religious folk is not a bad idea, on the surface. In the 2001 census, 83 percent of Canadians said they were religious, and 77 percent of all Canadians said they were Christians. Even in B.C., Canada's least religious province, 55 percent of residents said they were Christian. But being Christian does not mean you're automatically against harm reduction. Kinghaven Treatment Centre in Abbotsford, for example, is run by a board of directors, many of whom are Mennonite. The centre is methadone-friendly and is open to forms of recovery other than abstinence, according to clinical manager Larry Saidman.
David Diewert, a local Old Testament scholar who grew up in a conservative church like Harper's, told the Straight that evangelical Christians use punishment to assert control, and the faith attracts a kind of black-and-white thinking that breeds self-righteousness. That's reflected in the new antidrug strategy's crime-and-punishment worldview, he said.
Diewert, however, isn't conservative anymore. He quit his full-time teaching job at Regent College, a theological school affiliated with UBC, and now lives as a "committed follower of Jesus", working in the Downtown Eastside. To him, harm reduction is Jesus-friendly. If Canada's politicians are going to make decisions based on ideology rather than science, he said, he wishes they would base them on a more complex faith.
"Jesus was constantly breaking the [social] codes that prolonged human suffering," Diewert, wearing his trademark grungy blue baseball cap, told the Straight in an interview at a Burrard Street coffee shop December 13. "It's not within my faith to put people within harm's way, to make systems that create harm."
Diewert suggested that people use illegal drugs to ease their suffering, the same reason people take legal drugs, such as morphine or insulin. Harm reduction, he said, is compassionate in a society that criminalizes those substances, but it does not ease the underlying causes of drug abuse: isolation, meaninglessness, abuse. In his work with the left-leaning pan-Christian group Streams of Justice and the more secular Creative Resistance (which he started with Catholic poet Bud Osborne), he hopes to address the root causes of suffering–as, he said, Jesus did.
"Harper has to recognize that if people stop taking drugs, they have to deal with the tsunami of pain underlying their addictions," he said. "Who's going to help them with that? If there were lots of options for people to belong, get affirmation, feel valued, there might be a reason for being abstinent."
Those same causes of addiction are outlined in Bruce Alexander's very secular 2001 document The Roots of Addiction in Free Market Society, written for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
"The barren pleasures of a street 'junkie'," reads Alexander's report, "are more sustaining than the unrelenting aimlessness of dislocation." And Vancouver, he argues, experiences great addiction because the city is terminally full of dislocated people. Avoiding addiction, whether articulated by Christians or secularists, comes down to a sense of connectedness.
Even Kendall recognizes that addiction has a root cause, though for him it's more tangible. Ninety-nine percent of Canadians are not addicted to heroin or cocaine, he said. "If we can get to that one percent early enough, we can even eliminate that." He suggested the feds should spend money on a national child-care strategy rather than an abstinence-based anti drug "education" campaign of the type, he said, that studies show does not work.