This is your prime minister on drugs

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Stephen Harper's policies on drugs are embarrassingly backwards. In Canada right now, millions of people are paying out of pocket for medically necessary prescriptions and supplies, or, becoming ill when they can no longer afford to. At the same time, proven life-saving initiatives like Insite, Vancouver's safe-injection site for drug users, are being threatened by new legislation. Canadian communities need a national pharmacare program but instead, on March 23 the Harper government passed the second reading of Bill C-2, the "Respect for Communities Act," to throw up roadblocks in the creation of safe-injection sites. Once again, prejudice and fear-mongering trump evidence and compassion.

One week earlier, the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) published a study out of UBC that finds we could save $7.3 billion annually with a national drug plan to cover the cost of prescription drugs. Pharmaceuticals and medical supplies are currently produced by large and highly profitable businesses. With the patchwork approach Canada currently employs, governments, hospitals and individuals have no bargaining power when purchasing from these corporations. The result is that Canadians pay 50 per cent more for drugs than other developed nations. In fact, other than the United States, we are the only country in the developed world with no national pharmaceutical program to negotiate costs and ensure equity in accessing medication. A true parliamentary act to demonstrate "respect for communities" would concern itself about protecting us from outrageously priced pharmaceuticals and medical supplies.

It may appear that harm reduction and safe-injection sites are only peripherally related to the campaign for a national pharmacare plan, but it seems to me that the Harper government's drug policies inextricably link them. Bill C-2 raises the notion that drug users are a threat to communities and that any health care designed to serve them is in direct opposition to the health of non-users. This type of "us vs. them" logic plays perfectly into the government's focus on "crime" over sociology; and in this case, incites kneejerk reactions over the science and proven effectiveness of harm reduction practices. In this election year, the Conservative government is depending on voters being more repelled by the notion of a safe-injection site than we are motivated to demand pharmacare. If mass health-care campaigns demand both, we can undercut this cynical attempt to divide our communities.

The Canadian Nurses Association (CNA) has issued a statement saying that Bill C-2 creates barriers making it excessively difficult for new harm reduction programs to be formed. The CNA describes a climate where "critical health and social services (for) vulnerable populations -- especially those experiencing poverty, mental illness and homelessness" will be further at risk.

The good news is, despite many obstacles, the Insite program in Vancouver has been given an exemption from Health Canada to operate for another year. According to Dr. Patricia Daly, the chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, since 2003 "thousands of overdose deaths have been prevented, the spread of infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis C have been reduced and clients can more easily connect to health services like detox and primary health care."

It is an old-school tactic to raise the spectre of a potentially criminal "threat" to community that costs taxpayer money in order to detract attention from the daily health threat that Canadians will not be able to afford our medications. I can only guess what "community" means to the Harper government but I can tell you with certainty what it means to me. My community includes people with addictions who require safety and support. My community values the health of its members, choosing to pay collectively for the medication and supplies required by those of us with chronic health conditions. True "respect" would include both a national pharmacare program and the life-saving work of programs like Insite. Every community in this country needs a harm reduction strategy and every community member needs equal access to medication. It's time for 21st-century ethics to trump 19th-century morals.

Julie Devaney is a health, patient and disability activist based in Toronto. Her rabble column, "Health Breakdown," is an accessible, jargon-free take on the politics behind current health-care stories. You can find her on Twitter: @juliedevaney

Photo: hitthatswitch/flickr

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