Libby Davies: Why mandatory treatment doesn't work for drug users

A former MP gives credit to Mayor Kennedy Stewart for leading the charge to force provincial and federal governments to act

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      I’ve been involved in the harm reduction movement for many a year and worked with the community to radically change Canada’s harmful drug policy laws that have been a colossal failure not only from a health perspective, but also politically and economically. I’ve heard all the arguments over and over, for mandatory treatment, drug courts, and so Sarah Leamon's recent article advocating for mandatory treatment regimes in response to “Vancouver’s state of crisis” is no surprise. But it’s dead wrong, misleading, and based on an entirely false premise.

      Here’s why.

      First off, to say very little has been done and that Mayor Kennedy Stewart and his supporters have turned a blind eye to the challenges we face, is untrue. The city, under Stewart’s leadership (notwithstanding the realities of a fractious city council), has consistently lead the way for a humane and evidence-based response to the toxic drug market and the unconscionable loss of human life to overdoses.

      From the get go, in December 2018, just a few days in office, Stewart gathered up the experts both medical and in the community, and quickly charted a course for ending the overdose crisis. It is no small feat to try to radically change federal laws and policies on illicit drugs—but Stewart took it on, and got unanimous support from his council members, for a safe supply of drugs, and needed housing dollars from all levels of government, and they have kept up the pressure ever since.

      The city led the charge to force provincial and federal governments to act—to end the dire situation of people on the street facing a toxic drug market and a lack of safe housing and necessary life supports. Of course we’re not there yet—governments at the senior level are slow to act—but to blame the city for this is irresponsible and misleading. So let’s try and stick with facts and realities, not political posturing.

      Leamon then goes on to advocate for mandatory treatment programs through the justice system for “drug-addled” offenders who are chronic users of drugs. Here’s what’s wrong with that picture. Addiction and appropriate treatments, are health issues not juridical issues. Would we offer chronic cigarette smokers the “choice” of forced treatment or jail? How about alcoholics? How about addictive eating disorders—jail if you don’t stick to that healthy eating plan?

      Of course, these responses would be totally inappropriate and even ludicrous because culturally we understand these are complex issues and forcing individuals into treatment or incarceration as a “choice”, is not really a choice at all. It’s nothing more than a flawed, politically created response, rooted in the justice system because certain drugs have been deemed illegal, and the users of those drugs “criminals”. The idea that the judicial system will somehow fix the enormous harm and death it created by the “war on drugs” is doomed to fail.

      Even if the judicial system were the appropriate response mechanism—it doesn’t make any sense to wait years until someone is seriously debilitated and deemed a chronic repeat offender to then magically offer them the choice of treatment or jail. It’s like saying, only when you are nearly dead and so far gone do you get help.

      By contrast, harm reduction is based on EARLY appropriate interventions, as low barrier as possible, to keep people safe and alive—so that ongoing survival, life support, and of course treatment, can be provided. It’s based on a humane approach that recognizes that each person is unique and needs unique responses. That response would likely involve chronic pain management, a safe supply of drugs, and actually caring for people—not in jail—but in decent housing for the long term.

      I recall back in the 1990s when drug courts were being peddled as the answer, even by a former NDP attorney general—Ujaal Dosanjh. It was wrong then and it’s wrong now.

      If nothing else, let’s listen to the real experts—those who are facing the poisoned drug market every day. They have said over and over what they need. It’s not a jail sentence or forced treatment. Or just ask anyone who has tried to quit smoking numerous times in their life, if their perceived failure warranted incarceration.

      So let’s refrain from taking swipes at local electeds who are valiantly staying the course to do what’s right. Maybe it’s time to leave aside the easy judgements, and acknowledge that Vancouver city council has been a national leader, over many years, and often across partisan party lines, for a health- and evidence-based response to the drug and housing crisis that is impacting many communities across the country.

      Libby Davies was a member of Parliament from 1997 to 2015 and an early advocate for ending drug prohibition and the harms of the War on Drugs.