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.