Thursday, July 17, 2008

Margaret Wente's Third Column on Drugs - Perfect

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Europe's approach to drugs is more enlightened ... it's tougher

From Thursday's Globe and Ma

In 2006, Governor-General Michaƫlle Jean was hosting Queen Silvia of Sweden during the Swedish royal family's visit to Canada when the topic of illegal drug use came up. The GG told the Queen that Canada is taking an enlightened approach. Instead of punishing users, she said, society needs to be understanding of drug use and assist in reducing harm until the addict is ready to quit.

Alas, the Queen was not impressed. She briskly informed the GG that Sweden takes a hard-line approach, that users are given a choice between treatment and jail, and that Sweden's addiction rates are much lower than Canada's. After that, they changed the subject.

Advocates of harm-reduction measures, such as needle exchanges, methadone programs and Vancouver's supervised-injection site, often point to Europe's more enlightened approach to drugs as proof of how far behind we are in Canada. But parts of Europe are having second thoughts. Socially progressive Sweden had a brief but disastrous fling with prescription heroin back in the 1960s. After that, it embraced the hard-line approach. Today its policy is to make drugs very difficult to get, but treatment very easy - and sometimes compulsory. "The vision is that of a society free from narcotic drugs," says Maria Larsson, the Minister for Public Health.

As a consequence of grassroots support for this policy, drug use in Sweden is a third of the European average. "The lessons of Sweden's drug control history should be learned by others," said Antonio Maria Costa, who heads the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime.

Scotland took a different tack. Drug use is widely tolerated, as you know if you saw Trainspotting. Rehabilitation programs are scarce, but the national methadone program has become a vast and ineffective money-pit. Scotland has more than 50,000 heroin addicts. Drug deaths have soared, drug-related crime is high, and tens of thousands of children are growing up with addicted parents. "Methadone has quite literally become the opiate of the masses," warned Neil McKeganey, one of Scotland's foremost drug policy experts.

Two months ago, the Scottish government announced a change in direction. From now on its primary focus will be on "recovery," not just harm reduction. "Harm reduction ideas have failed in Scotland," says Prof. McKeganey. "They have failed to protect injectors from hepatitis C, failed to reduce the scale of the drug problem, failed to reduce many of the harms inflicted on others."

The Netherlands is famous for its permissive drug culture, but even it is not as permissive as it used to be. Although you can still toke up in marijuana coffee shops, pot remains illegal. A parliamentary proposal to allow regulated, large-scale marijuana production was voted down, and the government moved vigorously against the psychedelic drug ecstasy. Switzerland (which runs supervised-injection sites but also has thousands of treatment beds) voted against decriminalizing marijuana. The UK made marijuana possession semi-legal a few years ago, but experienced an explosion of pot use among minors, as well as a sharp rise in harmful effects attributed to more potent strains of weed. It has now reversed course and reclassified marijuana as a harmful drug.

Like Canada, Australia is experimenting with a supervised-injection site, in Sydney. The passionate debate over whether it reduces harm is virtually identical to the one in Canada.

I asked Scotland's Neil McKeganey if he had witnessed the drug scene in Vancouver, a city that is famous for its harm-reduction approach. He had. "I was utterly shocked," he said. "I could hardly believe that in a culturally developed, sophisticated city there could be a drug problem of such magnitude." In his view, too much emphasis on harm reduction invariably undermines prevention efforts. "To provide a setting where someone can inject street drugs is doomed. The next step is saying, maybe we should be providing them with drugs as well."

The provision of "clean" drugs is, in fact, what many advocates of Insite want next. "Many individuals who promote harm reduction believe there's fundamentally nothing wrong with drug use, except the fact that it's illegal," says Prof. McKeganey.

Every nation is different, and drug policies that work in one place may not work in another. But to him, Vancouver is a clear case study in what not to do. "It's a harbinger of what other cities could experience if they do not develop effective prevention methods."

This is Rich

"No process, no consultation, no process."

This is how BC's Auditor-General, John Doyle, has described the Campbell government's way of handling land deals.

Of course, the government's response is the old "shoot the messenger" gag. Forest Minister Pat Bell starts calling the AG names. Sweet.

What makes this latest case so tasty is that Rich Coleman was the Minister when this questionable done-deal was rammed through in favor of Western Forest Products. Coleman's brother, Stan, is a senior exec at the company.

So my old question, asked always in these situations - Whose cousin is he? - must be updated to - Whose immediate sibling is he?

Driving into Seoul from Inchon airport a few years ago, along many kilometres of perfect highway, I asked, "Whose cousin had the cement contract?

The next morning I read in the English language newspaper about the scandal of the cement contract going to some government official's near relative.


One thing about government corruption is that it is always so laughably predictable.

Non Compismentis

Compensation from BC Hydro?

What are you smoking, Girl?

Rogers has refunded me a considerable amount of money on an error for I am admittedly largely responsible.

Shaw has refunded me for an almost 24-hour outage of my TV and internet service a few weeks ago.

But asking BC Hydro to pony up would be like asking the Old and New Testaments to be re-written.

Cover Me

Alan Ferguson has written an excellent editorial in this morning's Province about the Obama New Yorker cartoon.

The cover cartoon was an obvious satire of the lunacy coming from the extreme right regarding Obama's history and sympathies.

But unless you stop and think about it, at first glance the cartoon seems to be saying that Obama is a flag-burning Islamic terrorist.

Of course, it is a typically outrageous New Yorker cartoon.

I agree with Ferguson's analysis in large measure, but I don't agree completely with his conclusions.

I don't think the cover is "brilliant" and I don't think it was a wise choice, precisely because so many people are so stupid and see only what appears to be the obvious.

This week, I received 3 pieces of mail scolding me for a poster I created in which I deliberately used the wrong spelling of a word to create a jokey pun. None of the letter writers got the joke.

Of course, that doesn't mean I should have resisted the joke, and there is no question the New Yorker should not be attacked for this cover.

Still, my sense of this is that it was a good laugh in the news room, but maybe it shouldn't have gone any further.

Natalie Cole