Canadian Drug Policy Coalition head: Ideology has no place

| June 13, 2011

On June 2, the Global Commission on Drug Policy report was released after two years' work, denouncing the "war on drugs" as a failure and recommending political leaders worldwide adopt evidence- and rights-based approaches to drug policy. This is a pan-political group, with left- and right-wing politicians involved. 

Donald MacPherson, the director the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, spoke to about the implications for Canada.

Cathryn Atkinson: Tell me about the Global Commission report.

Donald MacPherson: The Global Commission on Drug Policy launched itself about six months ago in Geneva. They have been working on this report for some time and the main intent of this report is to put forward a sensible, reasonable step forward in drug policy. More importantly it is to demonstrate that significant leaders from around the world are calling for change.

That makes this report powerful. It's certainly a synthesis of some of the better ideas in terms of what are our next steps if we are going to move away from the war on drugs.

CA: Let's talk about the Canadian response. There have been a large group of Canadian NGOs and other groups, over 30, supporting the report. How is it important to this country?

DM: It's particularly interesting timing for us, and I think it's good timing because it is affirming what a lot of people across the country are saying about public health and drug policy and the criminalization of the drug-crime agenda. Even conservatives I know who have no problem with what our Conservative government is doing [in general] really have a problem with the tack that the federal government is taking on drug policy and criminal justice policy.

This report basically shows that the rest of the world and significant leaders in other parts of the world are moving in different directions.

It is timely for us because the Conservative government needs to take a look at what is happening globally and find out where they want to be on these issues. Clearly, the Americans are moving away from the mandatory minimum sentencing policies, prison policies, for non-violent drug offenses. That experiment has been had and it's over. Even the conservatives in the States have been saying this hasn't worked and they need to try something else.

CA: Can you describe what the Canadian government is doing at the moment? Do they engage with the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition?

DM: Our organization is just getting off the ground, so we haven't been around to engage with. We're looking forward to engaging with them, these are really complex issues, and now that the Conservatives have a majority they may want to really examine some of the things that they have been saying, perhaps, in trying to get elected and get votes with. If they really want to go down some of these roads, in terms of the omnibus crime bill they are bringing forward and the, particularly, the mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. That bill.

The consensus in the research community, in the policy community, is that this will have a harmful effect on Canada and Canadian families, young people -- and it won't work to achieve what they might want to achieve, you know, creating safer communities and really put the "bad guys" in jail. The Americans have shown us that this does not do that. So we're really happy that the report has come out because it shines another light on another way of proceeding.

CA: Do you really think the Harper government can put ideology aside and take a more pragmatic approach on this? They've been very ideologically driven so far.

DM: There are members of parliament on the Conservative side of things that are drug policy reform people. There are people who are more libertarian-minded Conservatives. There are lots of Conservative voters that may agree with them on fiscal policy, but strongly disagree with them on this drug policy issue.

So I think they may now have a chance, now they are secure with their majority government, to actually put some thought into this, which we would welcome. And we would welcome working with all governments in trying to put forward policy alternatives that make sense and are more forward looking and more based in a more public health approach to the mental health addictions and drug policy than the criminal justice approach.

CA: Have you been talking to the Opposition as well? And outside Parliament, what is the activist and NGO community saying about the next steps?

DM: If you look at the press release we put out, I think it's a really good report from what I have read because it's not claiming to have all the answers but it's saying "let's start experimenting with alternatives" to global drug prohibition and the war on drugs because that has been an experiment we've had, we've had the results, and it is not working very well. Let's start trying some other things -- and that is all [the report signatories] are saying. They're saying let's try some new things and let's evaluate.

That's very much what I am hearing here at the Alberta Harm Reduction conference [from where Mr. MacPherson was interviewed by phone]. We have to move forward thoughtfully, incrementally; we have to evaluate what we do and this is what we do when we want to implement harm reduction programs or supervised injection site types of facilities. Let's try it! Let's see what happens and evaluate it. If it doesn't work, or if it has negative consequences, let's try and figure out how to stop that. It's really just sound public policy development, that we would ask our federal government to proceed with.

I don't know if there are enough pragmatists within the Conservative government to win the day on that, but if we continue down just an ideological pathway, we're not going to end up with a well thought-out policy. We're going to end up with belief-based policy and not evidence-based policy.

CA: Do you think an indication of a more positive response and a change in approach on the part of the Harper government could be shown in a new approach to Vancouver's supervised injection site Insite and the case in the Supreme Court right now, an attempt by the government to shut Insite down?

DM: Absolutely. The Insite thing sort of has a life of its own. I don't really understand why they are doing what they are doing. That will play itself out. I think the government will have an opportunity to think more thoughtfully when the Supreme Court does come down with its decision, which I certainly anticipate will be a decision that will, in some way, allow Insite to keep operating.

At that point, hopefully that battle is over and we can move forward with more public discussion about evidence-based policy. That's my hope.

The global commission helps in that it clearly show that it is not a right-wing/left-wing issue. When you have prominent Republicans showing up to sign on, it's not about politics, it's about looking at evidence for the last 40 years, and acknowledging that it has not worked and it is time to try new things. It's not rocket science. We have a lot of smart people on this country that can start to generate new models of regulating and controlling these substances. Right now, we've given them to the Hell's Angels and the organized criminals to regulate and control, and that's just a free-market system and a black market.

Addiction is a health issue. Problematic drug use is a health issue. Let's marshall our health resources to both promote health to prevent problems with addiction, and to provide a spectrum of services and support for people who are struggling with addictions. We do that with other health issues, like diabetes. We find ways of supporting people through their health issues. Let's do that here.

It wouldn't take a lot of courage, it would just be commonsense. We have reallocate some funds from the criminal justice side to the health side, but that's something that has been called for for many years.

Cathryn Atkinson is's news and features editor.

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