McMartin: Can David Berner reduce harm reduction?
One of these days, the current may turn in his favour.
It hasn’t yet. It won’t soon. But Berner, whose resumé includes actor, talk show host and drug addiction counsellor, has never wavered from his belief:
He is vehemently against the prevailing practice of harm reduction.
Not only does he not see it reducing harm, he believes it encourages and nourishes drug addiction.
“There’s a giant emperor’s new clothes,” Berner said, “and it’s called ‘harm reduction.’ And it not only has political sway these days, it’s pretty well the accepted wisdom of our time. It’s taught in universities, and governments all over the world sing to this tune.
“So needle exchanges, Insite, free crack pipe kits, shot glasses of whiskey to so-called chronic alcoholics ... those kinds of things are anathema to us.”
“Us” is the Drug Prevention Network of Canada, of which Berner is executive director. The Network was founded in 2006 by former B.C. Conservative MP Randy White, whose own brand of politics was famously incendiary. One of his more notable utterances — “to heck with the courts,” his solution to overturning same-sex marriage law — has been cited as one of the reasons the Conservatives lost the 2004 federal election.
Berner came to his views on drugs through more liberal and practical routes. He was with the Company of Young Canadians in the 1960s when he founded the X-Kalay Foundation Society, a residential treatment centre for addicts and alcoholics.
Berner was 24.
“They [the CYC] put up no money other than giving me $235 a month as a salary. Me and two aboriginal guys from the B.C. Pen put $130 of our own money on a table and rented a house at Fifth and Macdonald. We had no idea what we were doing and just through accident and hard work and the tenor of the times it took off. And four years later, there were 125 people in residence. And then we duplicated it in Manitoba.” [The Manitoba chapter has since been renamed the Behavioural Health Foundation, and is still in operation.]
Berner’s treatment philosophy, formed through trial and error, was one of tough love. Violence was not tolerated. Drugs were not tolerated. Backsliding was not tolerated. Break any of the rules and you were gone.
“When I started doing this work, I would say there was more of a sense of containment here. But in 1967, there were very few options for an addict. You could continue to do heroin. You could OD. You could go to prison.”
But about 30 years ago, Berner said, there was a sea change in sociology. A dark side to the expansion of civil liberties began to be felt.
“Suddenly, it was not only okay for people to live lives of misery, but there were people who said, ‘We’re going to help you.’
“Now, for addicts, for people who are lousy at choice-making, there are thousands of choices. There are dozens and dozens of recovery centres, of detox centres, Insite, needle exchanges. Everybody and their aunt are trying to help you.”
And while harm reductionists would claim that the services they provide are humanitarian and meant to save lives, Berner said, they don’t question the consequences.
“They say, ‘I’m going to give you a clean place to shoot up, but I’m not going to ask you where you got your drugs, or how you got the money to pay for your drugs or what you’re going to do after you’ve shot up here.’ And what they do after they’ve shot up is break into your car to feed their habit.”
The result, Berner said, is that they ultimately harm everyone — themselves, since they remain addicted and continue to live in misery, the people and family members around them, and society at large, since they feed crime while draining away valuable government resources.
And the proof of this futility, to Berner, is the Downtown Eastside. Hundreds of social welfare agencies and hundreds of millions of dollars have failed to eradicate or even lessen the problems of addiction.
Yet politicians and academics, Berner said, continue to be seduced by the arguments for harm reduction “because it sounds clever and smart.” Those politicians and academics, though, he said, haven’t been grounded in the dirty practicalities of addiction.
“There will never be enough for addicts because addicts always want more. So the question is, do we put our resources into harm reduction or do we put our resources to help people get clean?
“The first thing I would do if I was elected mayor? I would stop the flow of a million dollars a day to the hundreds of social welfare agencies. I would just stop it.
“The second thing I would do is, I would not have people asking, ‘Can I give you a clean needle?’ but I would have people going down there and saying, ‘Let’s get you clean. Let’s leave this life behind.’
“But the context now is, harm reduction has become so pervasive a reality, it’s really part of the culture now.
“But it’s a big giving-up. It’s a big shrug of the shoulders.”