Researcher condemns Prime Minister Stephen Harper's war on drugs

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      When retired SFU psychology professor Bruce Alexander starts thinking about Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s $63.8-million National Anti-Drug Strategy, he “goes ballistic”.

      The one-year-old policy promotes cracking down on illicit drugs, mandatory minimum sentences, media messages to youth, increasing abstinence-based treatment capacity, and funding more police officers. In other words, a classic drug-prohibition stance—one the Conservatives are repeating heading into the October 14 election.

      But ending prohibition isn’t the answer to the drug crisis, either, according to Alexander.

      In his new book, The Globalisation of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit (Oxford University Press, $70), he argues that the true roots of drug misuse in Canada go far deeper. Dislocation, fragmentation, and isolation are the side effects of unregulated capitalism, Alexander said.

      Drug addiction, he noted, is only part of the psychological toll of living in a society in which families regularly fall apart, land is stolen, and so many people have little connection to their homes. Misery is everywhere, he believes, and citizens work hard to alter their realities, with or without drugs.

      The Harper government has a very strong economic ideology,” Alexander told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “That’s a perfectly legitimate idea, but in their hands it’s a dogma. And if you take it as a dogma, then you simply can’t recognize that a problem as terrifying as addiction has its roots in the kind of fragmentation that is inevitably produced by free-market economics.

      "So they have to go back to the old idea that the reason we have people who aren’t behaving properly is drugs—that drugs have a magical quality of taking over human beings who would otherwise be normal guys shopping at Wal-Mart.”

      So far, no major federal political party has picked up on Alexander’s analysis, which was first introduced in his much-read 2001 paper The Roots of Addiction in Free Market Society. Though none of the parties had released its election platform as of press time, there has been plenty of talk about prohibition. A Green party policy document promises that Green MPs would legalize marijuana and launch a “public consultation on the decriminalization of illicit drugs”.

      Dana Larsen, the pro-legalization NDP candidate for West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country, created the “eNDProhibition” campaign. Although it’s not an official arm of the NDP, Larsen hopes it will raise the issue’s profile. “Not all politicians are comfortable speaking to it,” he said.

      In fact, the federal NDP was unable to convey its position on drug prohibition to the Straight by deadline. Liberal spokesperson Brad Zubyk told the Straight the party had “moved towards the decriminalization of marijuana” when last in power, but he refused to say more until the platform is released.

      Conservative health minister Tony Clement publicly attacked Insite, Vancouver’s supervised-injection site, twice in August. First, at the XVII International AIDS Conference in Mexico City, he called harm reduction “harm addition”. Second, at the Canadian Medical Association’s annual conference in Montreal, he called for Insite to transform into a treatment centre rather than a safe-injection site.

      “Insite may in some small subset of cases slow the death spiral of a deadly drug habit,” Clement said, “but it does not reverse it. I do not regard this as a positive health outcome.”

      Indeed, prohibition is essential to the survival of the country’s most vulnerable citizens, according to long-time Downtown Eastside advocate Joanna Russell. Now retired, Russell coordinated the Women’s Information and Safe House sex-trade-worker shelter for a decade, after surviving addiction and working the streets herself.

      “I’m so fed up with seeing sick people, people dying, people I’ve known for years,” she told the Straight. The NAOMI project (a heroin-assisted-therapy clinical trial) and Insite “may have saved people’s lives, but it didn’t do anything for them”.

      Russell argued that because B.C. exports so much of the drugs that are manufactured here, ending prohibition would just push that industry further underground, leading to more violence. She also pointed out that unless drugs are given out free—which, she said, would lead to more deaths—ending prohibition won’t end the petty crime that addicts use to finance their habits.

      Instead, Russell thinks a true Four Pillars approach—a drug policy that emphasizes prevention, treatment, and harm reduction along with enforcement—would work, with an emphasis on treatment.

      “This [the DTES] is a horrible, horrible experiment gone wrong.”

      Alexander, however, notes that the height of Vancouver’s drug problem, historically, came at the height of prohibition, in 1950. He thinks prohibition is a waste of money and energy. Internationally, Alexander said, Sweden and the Netherlands have the fewest drug problems in Europe. Yet one has among the loosest drug laws, and the other among the tightest. Clearly, he thinks, other forces besides drugs are leading citizens to drugs.

      To Alexander, the political solutions to the drug crisis are obvious. Build housing that people can afford. Fund schools and health care. Settle Native land claims. Make quality of life a top priority, and support citizens to easily create stable lives. Then drugs will become irrelevant.




      Sep 18, 2008 at 7:03am

      Woolley paraphrases Alexander as claiming "that the true roots of drug misuse in Canada go far deeper. Dislocation, fragmentation, and isolation are the side effects of unregulated capitalism."

      So if Big Brother controls my economic choices, that will decrease the likelihood of my becoming a drug addict? Uh, riiiight.

      I half-agree with him, though: various forms of addiction, lives out of control, stem from "dislocation, fragmentation, and isolation" - but not as the side effects of "unregulated capitalism"; rather, as the natural outcome of *immoral and/or unwise personal choices*.

      His thesis is not only factually wrong, it also ignores historical periods in which capitalism, though not named or articulated as an ideology, existed as a basic reality in the lives of farmers, blacksmiths, and the like, simply going about their business with one another on the basis of their own choices and efforts. Guess what: they didn't generally become drug addicts, even though their economies weren't "regulated" by the State (indeed, oft-times there was no "State").

      Alexander refers to "the kind of fragmentation that is inevitably produced by free-market economics." So I'm supposed to believe that when I am free to make choices and compete with others, that drives me closer to the possibility of becoming a drug addict? Big Brother's going to make me mentally healthier by diminishing the need for personal initiative and effort?

      All Alexander's doing, it seems to me, is advancing the age-old belief that some people have always held that it's OTHERS who cause their problems, that they're simply "victims" in a big merciless machine, that their own choices don't lead to their own downfall. Does victimization happen? Sure, but not in the systematic way that eliminates personal choice as underlying the plight of drug addicts. No economic system ever forced anyone to decide to put a weed in their mouth and smoke it.

      So while I definitely concur that there is a social phenomenon of "dislocation, fragmentation, and isolation," it hardly follows that State regulation of the economy is the answer. As far as I can tell, this notion is just a back-door attempt to make us more socialistic (read: communistic) than we already are.

      "To Alexander," Woolley summarizes, "the political solutions to the drug crisis are obvious. Build housing that people can afford. Fund schools and health care. Settle Native land claims. Make quality of life a top priority, and support citizens to easily create stable lives. Then drugs will become irrelevant."

      In other words: when the State runs everything and we become cogs in just another machine outside of ourselves. Yeah, that'll help. For as we all know, communism never sapped anyone's soul, right? The irony here is that Alexander despises "unregulated capitalism" as a soul-destroying machine, but all he wants to do is replace it with another machine: the State.

      The truth is that *any* social machine that controls our choices eats away at our souls. The solution, therefore, is not another machine, but *no* machine.

      Moreover, the State has no moral right to take my tax dollars for those kinds of projects. And this doesn't make me "uncompassionate"; what it means is that I reserve the right to use my own resources to help the needy in my own vicinity *as I see fit*, not as the State sees fit.


      Sep 19, 2008 at 7:59am

      The comment by ad10167 misses the point of my analysis of the causes of addiction.
      It is not at all a question of communism vs. capitalism, but a matter of how to organize life in a mixed economy so that people can live without feeling so empty that they are vulnerable to addiction. The following is a short quote from my new book, The globalisation of addiction, that should but this unfortunate misunderstanding in perspective:
      Please note: The cold war is over. The beautiful dream of a world founded on collective ownership of all means of production collapsed on itself in the USSR, China, and elsewhere in the 20th century. The ability of capitalism to produce the highest levels of innovation and productivity is undisputed. Although today’s globalisation pits antagonistic regimes against each other, all of them, including China, India, Russia, Venezuela, and Vietnam use market principles to organise at least some aspects of their economies and all are vulnerable to the depredations of hypercapitalism. Capitalism does not necessarily produce excessive dislocation and addiction when it is kept in a healthy balance with the other institutions of society. Dislocation and addiction are, however, mass produced by free-market society, which is a form of hypercapitalism that any regime can impose, whether it labels itself capitalist, neo-conservative, neo-liberal, liberal, market socialist, socialist, labour, a welfare state or anything else. This book is not about resurrecting the dream of pure socialism, although it confronts the urgent necessity of domesticating modern capitalism in the end.

      Bronwyn Elko

      Sep 23, 2008 at 1:15pm

      Kudos to retired SFU professor Bruce Alexander. His bold analysis of addiction and Harper's ineffective, U.S. inspired was on drugs rings bells for the cult of consumerism. Addiction becomes systemic whenever a nation values wealth over life, where the degrading habits of social agencies, corporations and politicians -- big pharmas, some doctors, non-profits and law enforcement -- make billions off the partisan "treatment" of addicts.

      In the Wal-mart age ruled by Midas, all that glitters is gold, including war and disease. Economic ideologies that tout profits over people place the roots of addiction within our own heart. Alexander's "fragmentation that is inevitably produced by free-market economics" shows how the hyper-capitalist pursuit of happiness strips spirit from matter. Objectification of living beings leads us to slaughter: When a person or tree is seen as simply timber for the money mill, the forest falls on the city. Bereft of beauty, we then feel hollow, disconnected, yearning for transcendence. To fill the void we drink, smoke, take drugs, overeat, gamble, watch TV or going shopping for our hundredth pair of jeans. From a purely economic viewpoint, hopefully we do all this plus consult professionals, buy self-help bibles, attend recovery programs, escape on expensive holidays, take loads more of mostly poorly studied, government-approved drugs.

      A nation run by Midas kings commodifies the entire bio-socio-political spectrum. All living beings then become meat bought and sold from the cradle to the grave. In the cult of consumerism, addicts are ground like bloody meat in the corporate grind for gold. Until we transcend all that glitters, our towering panes of glass will reflect faces ravaged by addiction, the starved look of Midas whose golden touch made even his food inedible. The addict's gaunt face and dead eyes mirror a culture that embraces the engineered needs of corporate politics and idolized greed. It's the face of the globalization of gluttony.

      Some will say that I'm inflating of the negative powers of hyper-captalism. For those who do, I ask them to consider the following proofs that "profits over people" is indeed par for the course, and that our addiction to that philosophy is literally killing us.

      1. Human beings need air, soil and water to survive yet these vital resources are being polluted and/or exhausted world-wide by the corporate-minded, who claim that green technologies are too expensive and/or impractical.

      2. Nearly every day some new product or drug is revealed as containing highly toxic materials. The product or drug is rushed through FDA, EPA and other agencies who know that higher powers in Washington, themselves being prompted by greedy lobbyists, want this product on the market ASAP. For those that doubt this, go to the website of Environmental Working Group, where you will find long lists of contaminated products. Your shampoo, creams and after-shaves, your make-up, your furniture and carpets and much more are literally toxic.

      3. Many of the barely tested drugs are readily prescribed by doctors who feed off "gifts" from big pharmas. Many doctors know that they are using you as guinea pigs but do it anyway.

      4. Your food is toxic with hormones and chemicals, which the government doesn't even bother to make them tell you about. Why? Money, of course.

      5. Even though school test scores reveal that we are dumbing down our children, we keep cutting their budgets. Why? Because corporate politics prefer the money goes into their own pockets.

      6. Health insurance, which if you pay for it, ought to be your right, is nowhere to be seen if you experience an expensive health crisis. You have to fight them tooth and nail to save your own life. Remember Love Canal? Erin Brockinvich's fight?

      7. Studies show that the bodies of the poorest residents who live on or near the Great Lakes are polluted with heavy metals from industries dumping into the lakes. Why? Because they don't want lose one nickel of profit to clean up their act.

      I could go on and on, but it wouldn't matter. If you don't think hyper-capitalism is actually cannibalism by now you never will.

      Does anyone not remember what advice Midas George Bush gave to the American people after 9/11? Go shopping, he said. That about sums it up, ask me.