Last week, Canadians heard howls of protest that Stephen Harper hadn’t attended the World AIDS Conference in Vienna, and that Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq had “failed” to sign the Vienna Declaration on global antidrug policy. This did not speak well of Canadian politics, which can be insufferably myopic. It seems no other G20 leader attended the conference, and certainly no world leader or health minister has signed, or would dare sign, the Vienna Declaration — which essentially calls for a wholesale reassessment of our current approach to fighting drug trafficking and addiction.
That’s their problem, not the declaration’s: We endorse the call for a wholesale drug policy rethink. But until the political zeitgeist changes there’s no point hurling rotten fruit at Mr. Harper or any other cheerleader for the status quo. Far better to persuade them their position is untenable. And the Vienna Declaration does an admirable job of that, in clear, non-hysterical language. “The evidence that law enforcement has failed to prevent the availability of illegal drugs, in communities where there is demand, is now unambiguous,” it reads. “Over the last several decades, national and international drug surveillance systems have demonstrated a general pattern of falling drug prices and increasing drug purity — despite massive investments in drug law enforcement.” The source of these wild-eyed claims? A report from the United States Office of National Drug Control Policy, circa George W. Bush.
The costs of the war on drugs have been staggering to its developing world battlegrounds. Fifteen years ago it was the Colombian cartels battling each other, their government’s forces and Washington, at a cost of billions of dollars and thousands of lives. Now, as Colombia flirts hesitantly with stability, it’s Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s war on his own country’s incredibly powerful, ruthless and corrupting drug gangs, at a cost of 23,000 lives since 2006. Most recently, it was a weeks-long battle in the slums of Kingston between Jamaican forces and the heavily armed supporters of cocaine kingpin Christopher “Dudus” Coke — at a cost of 73 lives on an island where the cocoa leaf doesn’t even grow. All of it to feed the habits of Americans and Canadians, and all backed and financed by their capitals. Statistics suggest rates of drug usage are falling gradually in Canada, and that’s good news –but no one could claim with a straight face that this is down to a lack of supply, or that criminal traffickers are considering going straight en masse.
One doesn’t have to believe drugs are physiologically or morally harmless, or to support harm reduction efforts like Vancouver’s Insite safe injection clinic (about which we are skeptical), or even advocate (as we do) the decriminalization of the marijuana trade, to endorse the declaration’s most basic demand: that governments “undertake a transparent review of the effectiveness of current drug policies” and “implement and evaluate a science-based public health approach to address the individual and community harms stemming from illicit drug use.”
Again, we don’t expect Mr. Harper (who is ideologically committed to prohibition) or Ms. Agluqqak (who is ideologically committed to Mr. Harper) to sign on to such a document. But along with many prominent activists, medical researchers and Nobel laureates, the Vienna Declaration’s signatories include Ernesto Zedillo, Cesar Gaviria and Fernando Henriqui Cardoso, the former presidents, respectively, of Mexico, Colombia and Brazil. They know whereof they speak.
Perhaps their fellow ex-presidents, ex-prime ministers and ex-health ministers might consider speaking up. We recall in particular a certain Liberal prime minister from Shawinigan, who used to claim to want to decriminalize marijuana. His successor times three, Michael Ignatieff, now postures as an avid prohibitionist whose public position amounts to “pot is bad, so it should be illegal.” This is not progress.
There’s nothing impossible about adopting a more sensible, less brutalizing alternative to what Conrad Black has called the “corrupt, sociopathic war on drugs.” Impossible would be trying to sell the current approach to the world, knowing what we know now. Important people who realize this must make their voices heard. Enough innocent people have died.
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