Jesus loves harm reduction, but Stephen Harper doesn’t

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.



Peter OLoughlin

Dec 22, 2007 at 5:48am

Actually, Jesus loved healing, and that I'm afraid is what so called harm reduction does not do, at least that is the case here in the UK, where Harm Reduction has, for a number of years, been the preferred modality of treatment, the declared objective of which is to reduce harm to communities, society and individuals arising from drug use, whilst also reducing crime and improving the mental and physical health of drug users. Key issues include 'Social reintegration and employment. So let's look at the factual evidence ot what that strategy has achieved.

HIV among drugs users has increased from 122 cases in 2001 to 4392 in 2005. (EuroHIV) Hepatitis C has increased from 4476 in 1998 to 55,000 in 2005. (Health Protection Agency)

Drug related deaths have inreased in 2004 to 5867, an increase of 6 percent on 2003.(National Statistics Agency)

The same sad story relates to mental health, social reintegration and employment. There are no figures available from any official website indicating the numbers if any, in abstinence focused treatment, however in substitution treatment, often referred to as harm reducion in 2004 stood at 135,000, 109,000 of whom were on methadone.

As for drug related crime, believe me you do not wan't to go there.

Now, as a humble addictions recovery counsellor,I've never met Jesus, but judging by his writings, I don't think he would have been too pleased by the outcome of our 'Harm Reduction' strategy, which appears to be faciltating, or increasing harm. Nevertheless maybe the medical professional who claims there is evidence of Harm Reduction working in Canada, is able to produce equally evidenced facts, from equally independent sources.

In the meanwhile he might want to consider the following fact: Abstinence is not just an option, it is the inevetiable outcome of addiction, the only question is whether it comes to pass by choice or death. As a society do we not have a duty to do all within our power to persuade those who are afflicted, that recovery is possible. Isn't that what Jesus really taught?


Dec 22, 2007 at 2:42pm

Methadone maintenance is a poorly understood treatment by most of the rank and file public, and even by many in the medical and/or addictions treatment field. They see it as replacing one drug with another, without treating what they imagine the root cause to be--usually some childhood trauma or, as in the 12 step beilief system, a "spiritual malady" that can be repaired by adopting a higher power and petitioning it for aid (even a lowly doorknob will serve the purpose, they say), by confession of sins, and by recruitment of other sufferers into the fold. This is what addictions treatment centers around in 97% of rehabs in the USA. Sadly, relapse rates are astronomical--anywhere from 75-95% for the rehabs themselves, and AA's own triennial survey showed only a 5% success rate for that much lauded organization. That is the exact same number of people who recover from their addiction spontaneously, without doing anything.

However, harm reduction meets people where they are. People change in increments--they consider the options, take small steps towards them, maybe backpedal a bit, trying again, gaining ground, etc. Not everyone has the goal of being completely clean and sober. Some may wish to stop injecting heroin, for example, but would like to have a drink now and then. Others may just want to cut down, or stop injecting, or what have you. Harm reduction's philosophy is "Any Positive Change". You cannot recover if you are dead, and too many people, forced into the all or nothing mold of abstinent, religiously based "treatment" of what is cheifly a chemical disorder of the brain, end up just that way--dead.

Methadone, for example, treats the biochemical disorder in the brains of many long term opiate addicts who have sustained permanent damage to their endorphin systems, and restores the brain to a normal balance. They are not "high" or euphoric, obsessed with getting more, etc. They are able to go about their normal lives, working, caring for family, paying bills. While it is true that there are some who continue using other drugs, they may have ceased problematic use of injection drugs, lowering their risk of HIV/HCV, and they see medical personnel on a regular basis, get referrals for assistance, etc. This IS positive change. And over 65% of methadone patients DO cease use of illicit drugs, and return to normal life--and those are excellent numbers, compared to abstinence treatment. Many patients may need to remain in treatment long term, but so what? This is a chronic, relapsing disease and long term medication is often needed due to the permanent nature of the chemical changes in the brain. People who find this unpalatable would do well to take a second look at reality.


Dec 27, 2007 at 4:01pm

Re: the 1st comment in this thread:
Please learn how to read tables of information before you quote them. You write that infection of drugs users with HIV in the UK increased from 122 in 2001 to 4392 in 2005 as a result of harm reduction. The table you cite says no such thing. The number of new HIV cases in drugs users in 2001 was 122 and then was 144 in 2002, 125 in 2003, 165 in 2004 and 168 in 2005. The grand total of all people in the UK EVER infected with HIV is 4392. What are you smokin' dude?


Dec 27, 2007 at 5:29pm

Please learn how to read a table before submitting comments like this. I don't have time to go through each of your erroneous statements but just to take one:
You write: "HIV among drugs users has increased from 122 cases in 2001 to 4392 in 2005. (EuroHIV) ".
Not true: it was 122 in 2001 144 in 2002, 125 in 2003, 165 in 2004 and 168 in 2005. The grand total of all HIV cases amongst drugs users thus far to date is 4392.

Troy Anderson

Jul 6, 2009 at 11:30pm

Why is it the Canadian Media don’t publish how many have died and have been injured since Jan 2006? It makes one think the Canadian Media is bought and paid for by the government of the day. Does this really seem like a democracy or any true kind of freedom, I think not.

We in Canada are being lied to every day, and this shows me that the federal government doesn’t really care.